How FirstNet Can Help Fight Wildfires

By James Careless

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), in 2023 55,571 wildfires consumed a total 2,633,636 acres in the United States, which is 47.39 acres burned per fire. Surprisingly, 2023 is considered a quiet year by U.S. wildfire standards.

As for 2024? “Since January 1, 15,366 wildfires have burned 1,911,995 acres,” said the NIFC web site on May 28, 2024. The good news: “This continues to be below the 10-year average of 21,388 wildfires,” the HIFC said. The bad news: The acres burned in 2024 so far is “almost double the average acres burned of 1,025,236.”

Chief Jeffrey D. Johnson is Executive Director of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and a retired Fire Chief in his own right. “There’s an old saying in the wildfire business that every year is going to be the worst year we’ve ever had,” he told “Either we didn’t get enough rain and the fuels are very dry, or we got a lot of rain and there’s a lot of small grass and small plants that later dry out. Whatever the case,the reality is that the global change in weather has altered the wildfire landscape more than any of us in the profession have ever seen, and not in a good way.”

This is why Chief Johnson is such a strong advocate for the FirstNet priority broadband network for first responders. “When it comes to wildfire management, the most important aspect provided by FirstNet is the access to data and situational awareness, both inbound and outbound,” he said. “Having access to this information can help first responders make better, faster, and more effective decisions during wildfire situations.”

To provide his point, Chief Johnson cites the fast-moving 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California. According to a PBS documentary, the Camp Fire killed 85 people, burned 153,335 acres, and destroyed 18,800 structures. “That fire traveled from its origin to the heart of town in under 90 minutes,” said Chief Johnson. “As the roads became clogged with people trying to exit the city, they actually executed Contraflow traffic where all lanes outbound were for evacuees, which put the inbound fire apparatus on the shoulders and in the fog lane trying to get to town.”

“Let’s just talk about what happens when you order a regional evacuation like that,” The Chief said. “As happened back in 2018, the commercial cellular networks are going to fill up with people checking on loved ones and taking pictures. They end up bringing down commercial networks just with sheer volume, which is why first responders cannot count on commercial networks in such situations.”

The Camp Fire was so devastating that it burned many cellular transmission suites, killing some commercial connections entirely. Fortunately, as WFCA Wildfire Policy and Technology Advisor Kim Zagaris reported in this YouTube video, “we were able to …request the FirstNet deployables to Paradise to assist us on the Camp Fire, as well as additional deployables to assist us at the Incident Command Post down at Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, to the California Fire Incident Management Team down there.”

This same capability explains why FirstNet is such a useful tool for wildfire incident commanders today. “Because FirstNet has dynamic priority and preemption rights on AT&T’s commercial network, plus their own dedicated Band 14 network, they can make sure that public safety responders have access to their data and the ability to place and receive calls in all situations,” said Chief Johnson. “As FirstNet’s data system evolves to 5G and beyond, it will let you see what’s going on with traffic on the evacuation routes, to see where it stopped and where it slowed and where it’s open on a real-time basis. This is vital information for an incident commander; having a network up and reliable so that police, fire, EMS, and emergency management can all stay in contact over cellular as well as existing LMR networks. If I were to say it in one sentence, we’ve moved beyond broadband data being a ‘nice to have’ in public safety to a ‘need to have’, and only FirstNet makes that possible.”

This ‘need to have’ is part of the moral imperative associated with public safety leadership. “It has to do with preserving the safety of your personnel as well as the people we’re sworn to protect, which is the community,” Chief Johnson explained. “I don’t want to be that chief that has to say why I chose not to use a network that offers the level of reliable service that FirstNet provides.”

“As well, Band 14 is such a robust spectrum in its range and reach, while FirstNet itself is a network built by first responders for first responders,” he continued. “Add in FirstNet’s high-powered user equipment that typically has six times the power and reach of standard smartphones, and FirstNet’s fleet of over 80 deployables ready to go where they’re needed, and yes — it’s always the worst possible year for wildfires, but FirstNet is here to make the worst situations better.”


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