Beyond shovels

Beyond shovels

Technology gives firefighters tools to tame wildfires

25July 2005


Five days after the Mason Gulch Fire erupted near Beulah, Jill Johnson boarded her specially rigged helicopter and headed toward the charred land along the fire’s edge.

Just 250 feet above the ground, the copter sailed above blackened and still-alivetrees, burned-over rocks and smoldering grass. 

Johnson sat behind her laptop, observed the territory through a radiometric thermal-imagingcamera, and mapped the land in red, green, yellow and purple.

A helicopter like this one operated by RAM Systems helped map hot spots for firefighters battling the Mason Gulch Fire near Beulah. The radiometric thermal-mapping technology identifies areas that need further quenching if the fire is not to reignite. Without the system, firefighters have to walk the entire perimeter feeling the ground for telltale heat.

Four hours later, her company, RAM Systems LLC, would provide fire command with a nuanced guide to underground hotspots, smolder and smoke, cool areas and those ablaze. It was a road map for what needed to be cleaned up.

Normally, crews would walk a 300-foot swath along the fire’s perimeter and feel each rock, shrub and tree for heat – potential sources of another fire.

This time, fire officials used Johnson’s radiometric airborne mapping data to direct mop-up crews to hot spots along the fire’s 21-mile edge. That released the rest of the 800 firefighters to rehabilitate and reseed the forest.

“You’re talking about land you can’t really map or walk around,” said Justin Dombrowski, spokesman for the Mason Gulch Fire. “The imagery helps us detect where the real heat is hiding.”

Jim Wallace, operations section chief for the Mason Gulch Fire, estimates the $5,000 a day spent on maps saved $500,000 to $600,000 in labor costs.

Technology such as radiometric thermal imaging is now part of the firefighters’ arsenal. Not much can replace old-fashioned shovels, water and retardant for ground fire combat, but technology allows crews to better plan and communicate.

“The biggest help is information. Information is power,” said Dombrowski. Especially if, as on large wildland fires, crews drive in from throughout the state and don’t know the terrain.

Some of the new tools were used before a shovel of dirt was turned.

A thermal-imaging camera under the RAM Systems helicopter and connected to a laptop penetrates smoke and burnt vegetation to find hot spots. The service cost $5,000 a day on the Mason Gulch Fire, but Jim Wallace, a fire team official, said up to $600,000 in labor was saved as a result.

The basics of wildland firefighting are this: Start at the heel of the fire, scrape a firebreak around the fire’s perimeter and finally pinch off the fire’s head.

Before crews dug in at the Mason Gulch Fire, the fire managers set up portable repeater stations atop mountain peaks. Those stations helped firefighters to communicate by radio when they’re thick in the action – a key for safety.

Then firefighters used information gleaned from an airborne infrared camera to create a plan of attack.

Such cameras take large pictures of land tracts to document buildings, access roads or specific stands of trees. In some cases, airborne cameras have detected endangered species or precious stands of mesquite to be saved.

Some workers employed personal digital assistants to access reference guides on scene.

Boulder-based Pocket Mobility has developed software that stores safety guidelines, map scale conversions and fire behavior patterns in the hand-held devices.

In the past, operations managers had to page through stacks of books, reference papers and laptop computers to find the same data.

Using Pocket Mobility, field crews on the scene could input the temperature, slope, weather, time and surrounding fuels. The PDA predicted how fast and high the flames would move.

“It’s kind of like magic when you punch that in, and it comes up with numbers,” said John Covele, president of Pocket Mobility and a firefighter himself.

His company has 5,000 customers, and his software is used, he estimates, on every major wildland fire.

Dombrowski, who works alongside Covele in the Boulder Rural Fire Department, says he appreciates how technology speeds decisions. But what happens if a phone, radio or PDA fails?

“The one problem is, you get new generations of people coming in, and they may never know how to do it by hand, and they only know how to do it by computer,” he said. “If we get completely reliant on technology, we may be setting ourselves up for some problems.”

Boulder Rural is among the Colorado departments that employs another uncommon, low-tech method to protect structures: triple-strength dishwashing soap mixed with water, or compressed air foam.

CAFS, as it is known, has been around since World War II. The British used it to protect floating wood bridges.

A thermal-imaging camera under the RAM Systems helicopter.

Despite its history, the technology has been slow to gain acceptance. Just 8 percent of new fire trucks come with CAFS equipment, and just 5 percent of city fire departments use it.

“There are times when the fire services says, ‘tradition, tradition, we’ve always done it this way,’ ” said Boulder Rural Fire Marshall Jeff Webb.

The foam can resemble marshmallows or shaving cream.

It works because detergent and air reduce water’s surface tension so it more efficiently attacks fires. While about 80 percent of plain water runs off, 80 percent of foam sticks to its target.

What’s more, the air that’s injected into the water allows it to spray 100 to 120 feet away – farther than undoctored water. Foam’s milky color deflects heat and cools the fire.

“The rule of thumb is, it is four to five times more effective than water,” said Geary Roberts, president of Pneumax Inc., the market leader in compressed air equipment. “And we use one tenth of the water.”

CAFS wasn’t used in the Mason Gulch Fire, but was employed two years ago to protect dozens of homes in Los Angeles that were threatened by Southern California wildfires.

New in the arsenal

• Radiometric airborne mapping: Airborne thermal imagery helps wildland firefighters “detect where the real heat is hiding.”

• Personal digital assistant: Field crews on scene can input temperature, slope, weather, time and surrounding fuels, then receive a prediction of where the flames are headed.

• Compressed air foam systems: Detergent and air reduce water’s surface tension, so foam more efficiently attacks fires. It also sprays farther than water. 


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