Tritons in Fire: Derek Alkonis ’87

What does smarter wildland firefighting look like?

Ideally, we would like to know when and where a fire will ignite and the direction it will run—but that would require a crystal ball. In reality, with so many factors contributing to fire starts and fire behavior, up until now, the best we could do is to use memories of recent events and react quickly when a fire starts. Smarter firefighting harnesses science to give us actionable data well beyond our collective memories and experience.

Big data analytics can take the known variables contributing to a fire start and progression and help us make pre-deployment staffing decisions. We are also using models to recommend resource packages matching the fire’s size.

Another smart tool we have come to rely on is the ALERTWildfire cameras. We’re scanning these cameras constantly during high-fire-danger days. You might see just a bit of smoke at first, but then we can move the cameras to find it, triangulate the views and drop a pin to immediately get going on it.

Right after that, WIFIRE can use the current atmospheric conditions and historic data to model potential paths of spreading, which we update in real time and send to personnel in the field. We reconcile these models with the conditions on the ground— we call that “groundtruthing”—but the prediction piece can be a huge help in orchestrating evacuations and being strategic about containment.

How does it feel knowing these tools came from your alma mater?

It certainly didn’t surprise me— UCSD is always on the cutting edge of something. I know the quality of education and the caliber of people at UCSD because my experience there pushed me hard and really made me a lifelong learner. I’m especially looking forward to working with them further on forecasting and prediction modeling, because that’s something we always need to do better. If we’re going to protect communities, infrastructure, our power grid and water systems, and vegetation as well, we need to keep learning, partnering and using all the help available to us.

Who else are you partnering with?

Since 2018, the Naval Postgraduate School has worked to analyze millions of wildfire data points to predict probable fire locations and recommend pre-deployed resources needed for initial action control. Their partnership has been a huge help. We also depend on Underwriters Laboratories’ (UL) Fire Safety Research Institute to help improve our understanding of the wildfire environment. UL’s ability to measure and analyze fire data in the structure fire environment is unsurpassed, so learning where we can use this equipment in wildfire environments is exciting too.

I’m also curious about what may come from other alumni reading this article—Tritons are all kinds of experts; I’m sure there are some interested in engaging in the Earth’s wildfire problem.

Are you a Triton in the fire service? Reach out to tritonmag@ucsd.edu