How Innovative Technology Can Support the Response to the Infrastructure Damage Caused by Wildfires

By Chelsea Merrill

As California concludes another hot, dry summer, the state faced another historic wildfire season. Not only are residents subject to unhealthy levels of smoke and significant property destruction as a result of the wildfires, but they must also face damage to public infrastructure caused by the fires or other related disasters such as landslides and mudslides.

Highway Freeway construction worker labor

The devastation from wildfires lasts long after the fires have been contained or put out. Fallen trees and damaged roads mean that many people aren’t able to access their homes or businesses for days or months. For example, part of California Highway 1 along the Central coast near Big Sur was closed for months to repair a section of the road that washed away during a storm. On top of infrastructure challenges, the hefty financial burdens can extend even further. In 2018, wildfires in California resulted in financial losses of nearly $150 billion. The fires disrupted the state’s economic supply chain and created impediments to transportation and labor which indirectly accounted for $88.6 billion of the total loss.

As these disasters have increased in frequency and severity over the years, so have the capabilities of technology and services to aid the state and local government’s ability to manage them. New tech-driven tools have already proved an essential asset during disaster response. During last year’s record-breaking hurricane season, where five hurricanes devastated the Gulf Coast, innovative inspection technologies enabled the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) repair teams and debris removal crews to make safe and travelable infrastructure available for first responders in affected areas. The technology helped the state prioritize the needs of the region’s citizens, ensuring that people got the assistance they needed as they grappled with the effects of the hurricanes.

Joshua Tree,California,United States – October 30,2007 : Equipment and three men building new road in the Mohave Desert at Joshua Tree National Monument. Focus on equipment and men.

As states across the country prepare for their unique challenges and potential disasters, departments of transportation and other government agencies are in an ideal position to embrace technological innovation that will enable them to respond faster, act on real-time data, and become more adaptable in their response.

Forest fire on the road

Most importantly, modern systems and technology will allow agencies to plan the response to disasters more effectively. They’ll be in a better position to prioritize which areas of destruction to prioritize once disaster strikes, making it easier for transportation leaders to react quickly to mitigate loss. Faster reaction means that impediments restricting movement of people and products can be lessened and that damage can be repaired more quickly and cost-effectively. Innovative technology in emergency response creates several notable benefits.

Enhanced Productivity and Efficiency

Being able to react immediately during a disaster or emergency creates the potential for greater impact. Because the wildfires are unpredictable, it’s essential to use time and resources as efficiently as possible in order to get a better handle on the situation. Understanding where debris is blocking roads or where the fire has spread is essential for giving crews a chance to prioritize how and when they respond to each hazard.

Trees burnt by the 2017 Forest Fire, that almost reached Yosemite National Park.

Improved Communication, Collaboration and Remote Connectivity

Even when traditional modes of communication are unavailable, cloud-based technology resources allow crews and teams to stay in touch and collaborate through a single channel or platform. For example, a collaborative technology that provides a way to take detailed photo observations of debris and other disaster ramifications from a safe distance can expedite repair of damaged infrastructure. GPS coordinates associated with images captured can provide a precise location to areas of concern.

Deeper Insights

Modern technologies help crews get a better grasp of the situation and empowers them to act on real-time facts and data. Inspection technologies that capture quality observations with embedded metadata that is easily accessible enable agencies to assess damage and make plans based on reliable information.

Your tax dollars at work billboard promotes Road Repair and Accountability Act 2017 also known as the Gas Tax and Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) – Sunnyvale, California, USA – November, 2019


While it may be possible to predict the likelihood of a disaster, the resulting damage or complications from the event aren’t going to be the same each time. With the right technology tools, departments of transportation and supporting agencies gain more flexibility to handle unpredictable situations. Technology that feeds data directly to spreadsheets can help agencies quickly grasp debris quantity and damage estimates. This information can be useful to establish priority routes for each fire zone, expediting road clearing for first responders and the traveling public.

California fires

Throughout wildfire season, state and local governments throughout California have an opportunity to embrace technological innovation and transform the way they address these increasingly common and severe events in an efficient and effective manner. Being able to continue to improve the response to disasters like wildfires can be a crucial element of saving lives, protecting land, and recovering faster from these devastating events.

Chelsea Merrill, Market Development Director with HeadLight

Chelsea Merrill brings over 15 years of experience working in the transportation industry and has spent the bulk of her career fostering and strengthening relationships with state and local government agencies, private sector engineering firms, and non-profit industry organizations. Prior to joining HeadLight, Chelsea worked as the External Affairs Director for a large California-based engineering association where she specialized in policy analysis, public relations, and client representation.  As market development director with HeadLight, Chelsea partners with public and private sector clients around the country to develop large scale deployment strategies to foster agency innovation as well as grow the HeadLight organization.

This material appears in the September 2021 issues of the ACP Magazines:

California Builder & EngineerConstructionConstruction DigestConstruction NewsConstructioneer,Dixie ContractorMichigan Contractor & BuilderMidwest ContractorNew England ConstructionPacific Builder & EngineerRocky Mountain ConstructionTexas ContractorWestern Builder