An Interview with Randy Lyle

Athena Intelligence
8 min readMay 29, 2024

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Former CalFire Division Chief and Principal at Wildfire Mitigation Strategies which provides consulting services to multiple electric companies around the United States.

Q: Randy, thank you for sitting down with us to share how you’ve been using Athena’s Voice of the Acre® for your clients. Could you share your background and give our readers some context for your thoughts?

A: Sure. I’ve spent my entire adult life dealing with wildfires, both responding to them and trying to prevent them. In the late 90’s I started using GIS to help understand and fight wildfires. I was an early adopter of new technology and pioneer when it comes to GIS products for wildfire management.

Randy Lyle of Wildfire Mitigation Strategies

After 32 years with CalFire, I joined San Diego Gas & Electric in 2007 which was a seminal year for wildfire safety in California due to a rash of consequential utility fires resulting in a flurry of regulatory activity at the PUC; the result of which was a fire mapping project that produced the High Fire Threat District map and in a requirement for some utilities to report specific types of ignitions. All of this followed the 2003 fire season which is recognized as the year that ushered in “Mega-fires”.

The Witch Creek Wildfire in October 2007 was a real wake-up call. It’s still one of the most devastating fires in California’s history, burning 198,000 acres and destroying over 1,200 homes in San Diego County. That fire also killed two people, injured 40 firefighters, caused over $1.1 billion in insured damages. It was also 1 of 7 wildfires in San Diego County over just an eight-week period.

During those two months, more than a million Californians had to evacuate their homes. In response, the CEO of SDG&E committed the company to doing everything possible to prevent such disasters from happening again. Over the next couple of years, SDG&E became a leader in wildfire mitigation in the electric power sector. I’m happy to have contributed to that process.

Q: So what was your first impression of Athena’s Voice of the Acre®?

A: Like everyone, I was curious to see what Athena showed for areas I knew well. So, I started by looking at the area around my home. At high resolution, we examined several miles around my house, and the subtle differentiation in the data displayed by Voice of the Acre® made a lot of sense.

San Diego County 2024 Wildfire

Then, I expanded my view to look at areas of San Diego County. The eastern part of the county is very dry, and some data systems mark these areas as high risk for wildfires due to the dry vegetation. However, the vegetation there isn’t dense, so large wildfires aren’t a significant risk. Athena showed these areas as yellow or green, which was accurate.

Further east, the wildfire risk increases, but the population and risk to property are still low. I was impressed with Athena’s accuracy. It retained fidelity and access to the original data sources at each of the vantage points.

If I were a programmer, this is exactly what I would have created to help wildfire planners identify where to focus and where terrain-based risks exist.

Q: So now you are using Athena’s insights with utilities?

A: Yes, I’m working with several utilities that are now using Athena’s VOA to reduce wildfire risk. I’m looking forward to sharing how my clients are using this new tool. Based on my experience, Athena’s Voice of the Acre is saving them time and money and increasing their confidence in their mitigation programs.

Q: What is the first thing most utilities do with Voice of the Acre®?

A: Regardless of the region, the first priority is always the same: defining the areas with the greatest risk or likelihood of having a significant wildfire in the context of the utility’s priorities. There are many places where ignitions can occur, but not all ignitions are unlikely to grow intocatastrophic wildfires. Therefore, we always start by identifying areas where wildfires are likely to cause damage to people, property, and economic activity.

Utilities have different labels for these areas; some call them Hazardous Fire Areas (HFA), while others prefer the term Heightened Risk Area (HRA). No matter what it is called, the first step in a Wildfire Mitigation Plan is to define the areas predisposed to host potentially devastating wildfires.

In this context, it is important to remember that most large fires occur in uninhabited areas. The three areas of focus are: 1) where their service populations live, 2) uninhabited areas adjoining their customer populations that could be problematic, and 3) uninhabited areas where a utility’s assets could start a fire.

Q: And how does the Voice of the Acre® help define these areas?

A: Every utility has an idea of where their riskiest areas are, but Athena refines this intuition. Using Athena to define areas with the greatest risk, utilizing scientifically sourced information and statistical modeling, removes guesswork.

I envision this almost like a fly’s compound eye. The insect sees various separate images, but its brain processes them into one cohesive view. Athena makes it possible to analyze multiple data sets and correlate all the data into a single, comprehensive image. This approach is much more effective than having individuals sift through all the data, as it increases confidence in what was intuitively known and helps achieve consensus among utility employees.

Athena doesn’t just rely on indexing and machine learning; it starts with best-in-class data and develops weightings for the key components of each dataset. Individuals might get overly attached to one factor, like Conditional Flame Length (CFL). Athena, however, considers CFL alongside other factors, carrying forward correlations to the next dataset, reevaluating and incorporating more data. Eventually, it produces a useful composite that integrates all the data into an easily digestible form.

Q: How did you do this before?

A: Honestly, we couldn’t. It would take too much time, and the human mind can’t simultaneously consider dozens of factors from multiple data sets. Consequently, teams of engineers, vegetation managers, or disaster planners would rely on their hunches and the few factors they knew well.

I believe in the importance of local knowledge. There is a saying: All models are wrong, but some are useful. This acknowledges that quantitative models can never fully capture the complexities of reality but can still be valuable. I appreciate that Athena’s team refers to their data as augmented intelligence, ensuring all information is considered in evaluations.

Voice of the Acre® augments local experience, such as that of foresters, by highlighting issues that might be overlooked, like the risk from grasslands in Northern Texas. Athena identifies the relevant factors and how they interact. Local knowledge remains crucial but is enhanced. Decisions on how to use the information are still made by humans.

Power companies want all that information to make informed decisions, but it’s impractical for them to compile all the data themselves. If their engineers were to do the data science, linking geospatial data to wildfire characteristics, the solution would emerge slowly and be prohibitively expensive. So, today, utilities often just eyeball the data and make best estimates. At the end of the day, Athena offers a more efficient solution.

My clients now have confidence in data-driven decisions, and discussions based on opinions are shorter. Planning team meetings that once took multiple hours are now much shorter, saving real money and enabling faster time-to-mitigation actions. Furthermore, the larger context is always considered and reflected in the risk score gradations.

Q: After the Heightened Risk Areas (HRA) are determined, what’s next?

A: Athena identifies the highest risk Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) blocks. However, these alone do not define an HRA. An HRA includes the broader context. By identifying all the higher risk areas, the HRA is determined by where these high-risk areas cluster concerning company assets, population, structures, and operational procedures.

For instance, a high-risk area surrounded by low-risk regions is unlikely to be included in an HRA, whereas an elevated risk area surrounded by other high-risk zones is likely to be considered a heightened risk.

Next, business decisions come into play. There might be gaps between high-risk areas, but from an operational perspective, it is easier to place the entire area on a more frequent inspection or maintenance cycle. Additionally, HRAs influence shifts in procedures on Red Flag days.

Q: The land’s propensity to host a wildfire is only one factor. What comes next?

A: We’ve touched on weather and situational awareness, but my clients now overlay the Athena wildfire risk data with their assets. This integration reduces time spent discussing opinions and increases confidence as we move forward to examine factors such as the type of line, pole complexity, equipment aging, and maintenance in light of the potential risk.

The next step is prioritizing mitigation actions. For example, an elevated risk area between two high-risk zones may become a high priority for the vegetation management group. Alternatively, a proposed corridor might be better rerouted around a high-risk area.

Each situation is unique and requires some level of judgment, but the process of reaching decisions is much faster. Mitigation decisions are defensible with the best available data. The beauty of this approach is the reduction in time and cost, coupled with increased confidence and decisiveness.

Q: What goes into the prioritization of wildfire mitigation actions?

A: There are three components to a utility’s risk: the land’s propensity to host a fire, the equipment’s potential to spark and cause an ignition event, and the Values at Risk.

Athena excels at providing insights into the land [hence the name, Voice of the Acre®], while the utility possesses insights into the equipment and its potential issues.

The third factor, Value at Risk, is not as straightforward as simply considering the location of people. There are numerous ways to conceptualize value at risk. It could be the dollar value of structures, the importance of a watershed, or even intangible factors like a scenic view. This aspect of human judgment plays a crucial role in prioritizing decisions around Heightened Risk Areas (HRAs).

Conversations become much richer when there is a consistent, data-driven understanding of wildfire risk. Seasoned individuals can then discuss environmental considerations, community impact, and the values reflected in how HRAs are prioritized.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of how utilities are leveraging Athena’s Voice of the Acre®. I look forward to our next conversation.

Please follow us to be updated on how customers are using Athena Intelligence, or reach out to us at Info@Project-Athena.com or read case studies on our website AthenaIntel.io

For more insights into Wildfire Mitigation Plans —

Athena Intelligence is a data vendor with a geospatial, conditional, profiling tool that pulls together vast amounts of disaggregated wildfire and environmental data to generate spatial intelligence, resulting in a digital fingerprint of wildfire risk. (athenaintel.io)

Clients include electric utilities, communities, insurance and financial services companies, where Athena’s geospatial intelligence incorporated into wildfire mitigation plans (WMP) and public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP), property insurance underwriting and portfolio risk optimization,

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Athena Intelligence

Athena Intelligence weaves vast amounts of disaggregated environmental data. Drop us a line (Info@Project-Athena.com), or visit www.athenaintel.io