Edison recruits “Wildfire Whisperer” to help prevent wildfires

Tom Rolinski, Southern California Edison's Fire Scientist. Courtesy photo, SCE
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When tech wizard Tom Rolinski goes to work predicting wildfires, he uses the technological equivalent of sniffing the wind, smelling snapped twigs and pressing his ear to the earth.

When he alerts fire officials and his bosses at Southern California Edison about hot spots  he feels are a high threat for wildfires, it’s only after he’s crunched electronic data garnered from several varied sources, using algorithms and weather-modeling data.

“I’m responsible for collecting and bringing together science and technology to help with wildfire prevention,” Rolinksi said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“I take a look at weather conditions and fuel conditions,” he said. “I tell them where and when they would see significant fire activity.”

Recruiting Rolinski for the job is all part of Edison’s 2019 Fire Mitigation Plan.

“We decided to hire him because of his expertise,” said Edison spokesman Reggie Kumar.

The same plan also saw the installation of 125 high definition video cameras placed in remote wilderness areas and strategic power cuts called  Public Safety Power Shutoffs used in high fire risk areas to reduce fire risk of wildfires.

“We really try to see precisely when we can turn the power off,” Kumar said. “We don’t want to have thousands left without power.”

Wildlife whisperer

Helping make that crucial surgical decision is 52-year-old Rolinski, graduate of Saint Louis University, with a degree in meteorology.

To Edison insiders, he’s simply called the “wildfire whisperer.”

His passion for meteorology started when he was a boy growing up in southern Indiana, where he made weather instruments and wrote his own weather forecasts.

When he was 11, he found himself obsessed with snowstorms, severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes.

“I would run home during lunch hour, just to check on the weather conditions and then run back to school,” he told researchers writing his life story for Edison.  “While everybody was outside playing football, I rushed home to write a weather forecast. I was definitely a weather geek.”

Fully grown and following his dream under turbulent skies, Rolinski has found his niche.

Rolinski has already prepared government agencies, utilities and the public for some of the largest wildfires in California history, including the Cedar and Witch fires in 2003 and 2007, the Thomas Fire in 2017 and last year’s Woolsey Fire.

He also co-developed the manual with which fire agencies and the public determine a wildfire threat during a high-wind event.  The “predictive model” is called the Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index.

In a very short time, it’s become the touchstone of wildfire predictability during a Santa Ana event — featured on the Weather Channel, used by fire agencies.

And, now, he is embraced by Edison officials as the utility’s first-ever “fire scientist.”

Fire Scientist

Rolinski began honing his abilities when he worked at the National Weather Service, on his way to becoming a certified incident meteorologist.

The role Fire Scientist allowed him to strictly focus on wildfire prediction. And, he’s applied his prediction skills with the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.

Rolinski’s wildfire-prediction process involves analyzing fuel moisture from wet and dry brush to accurately make a wildfire prediction — not so far removed from smelling snapped twigs.

It’s the other tools in his tool box — the high tech ones — that set him firmly on a science and technology footing.

“SCE has four other meteorologists that operate cutting-edge weather technology that was in place before I got here, and it forecasts fire conditions down to a third of a mile,” he said.

“With the addition of the supercomputers and fuel sampling program that I’m creating, SCE will be well-positioned to effectively predict the wildfire threat in state-designated high fire risk areas.”

Fire season

This fire season, the Santa Clarita Valley has seen firefighters respond to wildfires almost daily.

Last week, firefighters scrambled to three wildfires in a single afternoon.

On June 12, firefighters battling two local brush fires in triple-digit heat were dispatched to a third fire before their day was done.

As each day unfolds in the fire season, red flag warnings posted by the National Weather Service give fire officials the heads up on what could turn out to be a very busy firefighting day.

The conditions are high temperatures, an abundance of brush considered dry fuel and strong winds.

What Rolinksi does is take the red flag warning to a heightened new level with tools like the high-definition cameras sprinkled across a countryside of drying brush.

“We have the ability to manipulate those cameras,” he said, creating eyes on a wide expanse of territory.

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On Twitter @jamesarthurholt

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