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article imageFire experts use technology to help assess damage from wildfires Special

By Nathan Salant     Aug 21, 2016 in Environment
San Bernardino - Fire-ravaged terrain in the path of this week's Blue Cut fire was still smoldering when CalFire assessment experts fanned out into the damaged area, trying to figure out what exactly was destroyed and what it would cost to replace it.
A team led by Fire Marshal Mike Horton of the San Bernardino Fire Dept. quickly set up a mobile command post just south of the 58-mile burn area and convened his team of 15 investigators, technicians, hazardous materials experts and other damage assessment professionals assigned to figure out what was lost and what is left.
"We come in right on the heels of the fire," Horton said, according to the Associated Press.
"Once it's cool enough, we go parcel-by-parcel," he said.
California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection technicians compare what they see with what was there using mobile computer applications with geographic data and county assessor information, and take a lot of photos, because fires like Blue Cut can burn so hot and so quickly that many burned out structures are unrecognizable.
More than 100 homes and 200 other buildings in Southern California were destroyed after the fire swept down from Cajon Pass about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles and across miles of mountains, hills and small towns left vulnerable by five years of drought.
The fire was 73 percent controlled by Saturday, the AP said, and evacuations that displaced more than 80,000 people began to be lifted on Friday.
"Things are extremely positive," said Maricopa, Ariz., firefighter Brad Pitassi, who is handling public information inquiries for the Blue Cut fire.
But Horton said the total damage numbers could increase as the team goes through fire-damaged areas, putting together maps to show evacuated residents whether their homes survived.
Information about the fire damage is being made available to residents online, on telephone messages and in postings at evacuation centers.
Color-coded maps were distributed showing areas completely destroyed in red, severely damaged areas in orange, moderately damaged in yellow and not damaged in green.
"Green, you're in good shape," Horton said. "Any other color and you should be concerned."
No deaths have been reported from the Blue Cut fire so far.
Damage reports gathered by the assessment team are expected to assist local fire commands and emergency services offices, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies who need to assess damage too.
"We have to be so exact," Horton said.
"We don't release anything until it's triple-checked," he said.
But accuracy is of primary importance because the information being gathered is vital to residents who were evacuated from their homes, Horton said.
"The last thing we want is people thinking, 'Oh my house is fine,' when it's not," he said.
"It's a very difficult thing for them to go through," CalFire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmoschoff said.
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