A view of Los Angeles 2009 Station Fire. (Kevin Dean/Flickr.com)
Just like Groundhog Day kept kicking Bill Murray’s ass, we can count on the upcoming wildfire season to provide a boot of its own- yet again. As she has for ages, Mother Nature will provide wildland firefighters with more than enough with which to contend.
As state and federal agencies face dwindling resources and taxpayer funding, wildland firefighters find themselves thinking outside the box- looking for new and creative methods to meet these challenges. Constantly-evolving 21st-century technology are generating some pretty cool new arrows to fill their depleted quivers.
Personal Personnel GPS
Even the simplest GPS navigational devices can also prove indispensible in the hands of out-of-town firefighters trying to locate water sources fast while working in unfamiliar territory. Devices like the Spot Personal Tracker, a budget-friendly gadget and service combination used by some hikers in mountainous terrain, also has potential. It sends signals to a satellite where there is no cell tower or pager network. Just as it does for hikers, it could send “here I am” messages from firefighters back to a server, which would mark a global map with dots or spots giving fire commanders critical firefighter location information at a glance.
Imagine you are footing it around the side of a mountain, looking for the best way to attack the fire as it burns in areas close by, yet unable to be seen due to terrain. Wouldn’t it be nice to fly your eyeballs around your immediate area to avoid wasting time and energy going somewhere to look? Now, an innovative system designed to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles around, rather than above, forest fires. It’s so compact that it could be used by firefighters on scene and stored on fire trucks when not in use. SwissCopter’s Fire Mission system consists of a mobile cockpit, a backpack and the Peyelot helmet, a headset that can pick up signals within the UAV’s 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) range. If you move your head while wearing the helmet, the camera on board the UAV will follow your movements in real time. It looks like you are on board the UAV, and you see everything as if you were on board. No time is lost in getting the images and information to the firefighters; because they are operating the system themselves.
At a potential cost of zero, San Diego State University has an interesting take on another UAV that can be used virtually anywhere by almost anyone. The drones are demonstrated in this video. They carry two cameras, one for high-resolution photos, and another for real-time video that can be monitored by an IC on the ground. They offer better imagery than NASA’s Ikhana UAV for a mere fraction of the cost and immediacy that can’t be beat.
These UAVs clearly are a welcome new tool. Improved models are definitely viable and will likely be developed as budgets permit, so it can be expected that the civil use of UAVs in wildfire fighting will expand. With the optimal craft, you could fly around a fire, collect imagery, process it, send it down to the ground, and maybe get a fire perimeter every 10 minutes.
Better situational awareness is only the beginning. Knowing precisely which areas are at highest risk of fires could transform how we fight them. Voltree Power in Canton, Massachusetts, has developed a shoebox-size sensor that, planted one per acre, could gather microclimate information, such as spikes in temperature and drops in humidity, that signal a nascent fire. In April the Forest Service began field-testing the device, which can run for a decade on voltage generated from the pH imbalance between a tree and soil.
Tree-mounted Weather Sensor: One of Smokey’s new tools for keeping fire at bay Courtesy of Christopher Huang
To help deal with the flood of new information, the Forest Service and the National Park Service will use the the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, an online tool that crunches data in real time, using fire behavior models and weather forecasts to determine whether to attack flames on foot or call in planes to dump fire-suppressant gel.
Even with technological advances in firefighting, perhaps the best way to minimize damage is to recognize that fires play a necessary role in restoring certain ecosystems, and so we should stop building in at-risk areas and use fire-retardant materials, says fire ecologist Max Mortiz of the University of California at Berkeley. Mortiz recently published data predicting that climate change will increase wildfire activity across much of the U.S. “We don’t fight earthquakes and floods — we coexist with them,” he says. “We need to learn to do the same with wildfires.”
As we progress toward this end, we may begin to see Groundhog Day scenarios give way to the the upcoming advent of spring- and St. Patrick’s Day!