Terrain model assists with fire training, response
There is no such thing as a model wildfire, but firefighters in San Jose, Calif., believe in a model response. Following an October 2000 wildfire that consumed approximately 20 acres, the city’s Fire Department purchased a three-dimensional, solid terrain model to help it pre-plan response to and fight future blazes.
The 2000 fire started near Alum Rock Park when high winds blew electrical wires, causing the wires to slap together in a tree and ignite the branches. The fire reached the ground, where, fueled by dry grass and propelled by wind, it swept through the San Jose foothills toward residential neighborhoods.
In addition to fanning the four-alarm blaze, the wind prevented firefighters from responding with aerial tankers and helicopters. Area residents evacuated, and, ultimately, the fire destroyed one residential structure and damaged several more before it was extinguished.
To ensure preparedness for similar events, the Fire Department implemented a training regimen for tactical and strategic wildland fighting. It also commissioned a model of the foothills — where wildfires are most likely to occur — to complement the training.
Produced by Fillmore, Calif.-based Solid Terrain Modeling, the four-foot-square model was carved from high-density, plastic foam. Built to scale, the full-color structure shows terrain, access roads, hazards and jurisdiction boundaries.
“The model represents the east foothills and the Alum Rock area far more accurately than any maps or photos we have,” says Jim Carter, battalion chief for the San Jose Fire Department. “It is extremely useful in communicating information about the area and the terrain. Fire officers can gather around the model and view it from any angle. They can discuss it, touch it and point to specific features, and, as they do, everyone in the group can see scale, distance, terrain, coloration, points of view and sight lines.”
During training, fire fighting tactics are illustrated graphically using the model. Carter anticipates that the model will be a useful response tool as well. “We can transport the model to the incident command post and plot the fire as it is occurring,” he explains. “It will give the incident commander a better view and real-life picture of the area, what the fire is doing and, more importantly, where it is going.”
San Jose paid $10,000 for the foam replica. Plans for another model, covering a broader area of the foothills, are in the works.