Southwest fire center battles worst blazes in 28 years

Southwest fire center battles worst blazes in 28 years

23 June 2011

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USA — At the Southwest Coordination Center, nerve center for federal, state and local response to forest fires in Arizona and New Mexico, managers are using a variety of software programs and information technology tools to help juggle resources to battle blazes during the worst fire season in nearly three decades.

In terms of conditions that spread fires — drought, heat and wind — “this is as extreme as it gets,” said Bob Leaverton, regional fire and aviation director for the Forest Service. Leaverton said he has never seen such a dangerous combination of dire conditions in his 28 years with the Forest Service. As a result, the Southwest has experienced a series of massive fires in 2011 — the worst in almost 30 years — including the 826-square-mile Wallow Fire, the largest Leaverton has experienced in his career.

Now the Southwest Coordination Center, staffed by personnel from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona State Land Department, and the State of New Mexico Division of Forestry, is managing the response to six active fires in Arizona and eight active fires in New Mexico. The center also monitors five inactive fires in Arizona and another two in New Mexico.

The center has deployed almost 3,500 firefighters and 202 engines to the Wallow Fire, 160 miles east of Phoenix, and intelligence plays a key role in managing both personnel and equipment, said Mary Zabinski, a spokeswoman for the center.

Tonja Opperman, a Forest Service fire applications specialist from Gardiner, Mont., posted here temporarily to run a fire decision support center, said her team uses a software package called Wildland Fire Decision Support System to help make strategic tactical firefighting choices.

The decision support system displays all fires in the region as “big red dots” in a geographical information system that contains relevant information on specific fires, such as wind speed and direction, and hot spot data derived from daily infrared mapping flights over the Southwest by Forest Service aircraft, Opperman said.

The system includes a probability model that helps project a fire’s potential spread based on factors such as the type of timber and vegetation in its path as well as topographic characteristics.

Shortly after the Wallow Fire started, smoke from that conflagration began drifting east, leading to air quality warnings in Albuquerque and other parts of western New Mexico.

Cody Wienk, a National Park Service fire ecologist from Omaha, Neb., said the decision support system includes a modeling program that can predict the probable direction of smoke plumes — information that can be passed on to local health departments.

Diane Rau, a Forest Service fire technology transfer specialist who started her career as a firefighter on a hot shot crew in Montana, uses another tool in the decision support system for long-term — seven days out — fire modeling. The tool forecasts fire behavior by simulating 2,000 fires in a particular area on top of each other, and then determining the probability of their spread.

Rau has high praise for the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, as it was developed by the National Interagency Fire Center based on input from end users, with the system constantly evolving in accordance with continued input.

Opperman said the work of her team is key to the day-to-day firefighting operations, as resources are stretched this season. The team’s analyses aid managers on where to allocate personnel and assets on a daily basis.

The hot spot imagery used by the fire decision support center team is collected by the Forest Service National Infrared Program office, also located here. The program operates two aircraft, a Cessna Citation jet and a Beechcraft turboprop King Air, each equipped with the aptly named Phoenix airborne infrared fire detection and mapping system.

Thomas Mellin, the Forest Service’s regional remote sensing coordinator, said this system can detect fire hot spots within 4 meters and make that information available to coordination centers and to interpreters located at fire incident command posts through a central computer server. Due to the intensity of the fire activity in the Southwest during the past week, Mellin said both aircraft have operated nightly flight over Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

Mellin said once the infrared system collects the data, it’s downloaded with a technology available to passengers on Delta, American and AirTrans and other airlines — an AirCell Inc.-operated aircraft cellular system that can transmit data to the ground at a rate of 1.8 mbps.

Other aircraft — air tankers or fire bombers, along with helicopters equipped with water buckets — serve as the big guns of the wildfire battle.

The center has 15 water-bucket carrying helicopters and five fixed-wing air tankers, which drop fire retardant deployed to just the Wallow Fire, with all aviation assets in Arizona and New Mexico managed by Kim Owczarzak, a Bureau of Land Management aviation dispatcher.

Owczarzak, who started her career as a firefighter, uses an Automated Flight Following System that displays the location of all the aircraft on a desktop map, with updates of their GPS-derived location broadcast every two minutes via a satellite communications link.

This system also displays the location of aircraft on the ground, and when she gets a call for an aircraft from one of the 12 dispatch centers, Owczarzak said she can eyeball the display monitor and find one available to handle a particular mission. This fire season, Owczarzak said she has dispatched the largest air tanker in the world, which can drop 12,000 gallons of fire retardant in one pass.

Smokejumpers — the special forces of firefighting — also go about their missions with high-tech tools, according to Rocky Ahshapanek, a jumper base manager detailed here from Missoula, Mont. Since smokejumpers operate in remote areas, he said, they carry iridium satellite phones to ensure communications, along with GPS receivers to pinpoint their location and fire lines.

Leaverton said the multiagency fire response system works so well because personnel with special skills from state, local and federal agencies are all trained the same way, meaning they report to a central coordination center or an incident command post and can start doing their job within minutes.

Benjamin Bramwell, a lieutenant from the Denver Fire Department, proves the true utility of the cooperative approach. Trained on National Interagency Resource Ordering and Status System software used to manage firefighting logistics and also uesd by state, local and federal agencies, Bramwell sat down at a desk in Albuquerque, fired up the software and started coordinating the logistics for forest fires far from home.

“I’ve been here three hours, and I’m managing resources,” Bramwell said.

The coordination center here has operated on a 24-7 basis since May, Leaverton said, and he expects that pace to continue for another three to four weeks, until early summer rains dampen one of the worst fire seasons in memory.

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