They are among the cutting-edge technologies being perfected for crews looking for any edge they can get over fast-moving blazes that surge out of the backcountry to threaten homes.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is working with a remote-camera surveillance system that gives firefighters electronic “eyes” with a sweeping view of much of the county.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is converting old helicopter gunships into flying observation posts, able to penetrate smoke to see a fire, find its hottest points, map it and transmit the information to computers and monitors on the ground, giving firefighters in minutes vital data that used to take hours or even days to obtain.
The developments are part of a concerted effort across the country by the fire service and the private sector to bring innovation to bear against wildfire.
Sometimes, it means adapting war-fighting technology such as using high-flying, pilotless Predator surveillance planes or even spy satellites to detect and track fires.
Other times, it means adapting jets such as Russian-built Ilyushin 76s or even giant Boeing 747s into super air tankers, capable of hitting fires with water or fire retardant in amounts once thought unthinkable 12,000 gallons for the Ilyushin, 24,000 gallons for the 747.
The CDF’s marriage to the camera surveillance system, however, was more of a happy accident, CDF Battalion Chief Tom Gardner said.
Funded with a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, development of the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network began four years ago as an effort to bring high-performance wireless Internet to the county’s Indian reservations, said its director, University of California San Diego research scientist Hans-Werner Braun.
Braun asked the CDF if he could use its radio repeater towers, scattered across mountaintops around the county, to install his system.
“He put cameras there to make sure his antennas faced the right way. We saw those cameras and that started us thinking, ‘Could we use that?’ ” Gardner said. “Then we asked: ‘Could you install weather stations up there? Could we get Internet access in the fire camps?’
“And that’s how it started.”
In addition to giving them sweeping looks across miles of the county, the system also gives firefighters high-speed Internet access in areas too remote even to use cellular phones.
It also can transmit vital weather data such as wind speed and relative humidity from a fire zone to an incident commander.
There are now 24 remote cameras mounted on peaks and hilltops across the county, and discussions are under way with property owners to erect more, Braun said.
Each camera is sharp enough to see up to about 70 miles away. Some of the cameras are mounted in fixed positions, while others can be panned, tilted and zoomed remotely.
The cameras are activated by motion or any other change in the image. “It sees motion and automatically transfers images to the server,” Braun said.
The cameras are fast enough to freeze images such as lightning strikes or birds in midflight.
“It’s like having a lookout out there,” Gardner said. “We can look north, south, east and west.”
The CDF already has used the system on several fires, including the Pines fire of 2002 and Coyote fire in 2003.
During the first night of last year’s Cedar fire, when firefighting aircraft weren’t allowed to fly and firefighters couldn’t find a way to reach the blaze by road, the cameras helped chiefs track the fire’s spread, Gardner said.
“The dissemination of information and incident intelligence up and down the command-and-control chain is more important than ever,” said CDF Chief Jim Garrett, who helped fight the Coyote fire. The network “provided us an invaluable service.”
The network’s cameras produced about 150,000 still images of the Cedar fire, enough to enable Braun to create a time-lapse animation sequence of the massive blaze.
The importance of a wireless Internet connection became clear during last October’s fires, when mismatched radio systems among the various departments and overwhelmed cell phone networks left communications all but paralyzed.
“In the old days, we were limited to radios. Radios obviously don’t work everywhere,” Gardner said. “Then we got used to using cell phones, but cell phones don’t work everywhere, either.”
The U.S. Forest Service has taken a more narrowly focused and more mobile approach. It has converted a Huey Cobra helicopter gunship into a surveillance craft called Firewatch.
Not much wider than the shoulders of its pilot and observer, the chopper comes equipped with cameras and an infrared sensor where the ship’s three-barreled, 20mm cannon used to be. More sensors are mounted atop a small mast just behind the cockpit.
The converted gunships allow fire commanders miles away to get a detailed look at a fire in any direction and enable them to detect a fire’s hot spots through thick smoke, transmitting everything to a standard-size van on the ground.
“We can send live streaming video and live infrared video on a fire to any command post, remotely,” said Forest Service air attack officer Stan Kubota.
The Forest Service has used Firewatch on a half-dozen fires, mostly in Southern California. The craft is based at the Forest Service’s emergency operations center in Redding but can be used anywhere in the country. A second one is being built and is expected to go into service by year’s end.
“For an incident commander, being able to see for himself what a fire is doing is crucial,” Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth said. “Most of the time, you get someone describing to you what’s out there. The only way you can really see what’s going on is with something like this.”
Restoring the stripped-down ex-gunship to flying condition cost the Forest Service about $100,000. Installing all the technology and making certain it all worked together was an additional $1 million.
Firewatch’s developers aren’t content to just give commanders a clear view, however. In addition to live video feeds and infrared imagery, they’ve installed equipment and computer software that will allow the Firewatch crew to map fires from the air and transmit those maps in real time to firefighters on the ground.
“We can give them map overlays that show subdivisions, roads, power lines, whatever they want,” Kubota said.
That mapping ability not only gives commanders crucial information but will get it to them many times faster than before, said veteran Forest Service pilot Morgan Mills, who helped develop Firewatch.
“To map a fire without airborne capability, you’ve got to walk a person around it,” Mills said. “That can take a long time maybe hours, maybe half a day, maybe two days.”
Now that information can be in commanders’ hands within 15 minutes, Mills said.
None of these technologies is yet perfected.
The remote camera network has gaps in it, especially in the northeastern section of the county. Haze also can limit the cameras’ reach.
Firewatch, meanwhile, suffers somewhat from short endurance. Originally meant to operate close to the battlefield, it has relatively small fuel tanks and a flying time limited to about three hours, Forest Service officials said.
Even so, the CDF and the Forest Service are enthusiastic about their forays into high-tech firefighting.
“I wish they’d had these things back when I was fighting fires,” Bosworth said.
Photo courtesy of UCSD and HPWREN A raven and a hawk were captured on takeoff last month by one of four remote digital cameras mounted on a tower atop Lyons Peak and wired into the High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network, or HPWREN, system. State and federal firefighters are adding and refining high-flying surveillance gear and remote cameras linked to the Internet to their arsenal of weapons against wildfire.