Wildfire Firefighting Goes High-Tech

As fires continue to rage in Southern California, resulting in the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and several deaths, firefighters are employing the newest technologies from command centers and on the ground, to protect homes, land and people from the flames, while scientists toil to make advances in the prediction and detection of future blazes.

Since Sunday, more than 10 wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres, and similarly left hundredes of thousands of residents — many of them from San Diego County — homeless. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Tuesday that 1,500 homes remain in danger, and called on people in the area to evacuate.

NASA announced Wednesday that it will fly a remote plane, the Ikhana, over fire sites and take images of the blazes with a thermal-infrared imaging system developed at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Capable of seeing through heavy smoke and darkness to see hot spots, flames and temperature differences, the system will transmit the to a communications satellite at the center.

"After processing, the images are transmitted through a communications satellite to NASA Ames, where the imagery is placed on an Ames Web site. Then the imagery is combined with Google Earth maps," spokesman Jim Brass said in a statement.

Similarly, researchers in command centers have been developing fire behavior models to help fire managers better plan how to use their resources and, potentially, even which communities to evacuate next.

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Working out of a Southern California geographic center with other organizations, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service runs computer programs that can predict a fire's life span, how fast it will grow and in what direction it will spread.

The program, called FS Pro, produces digital maps of the fire's progress, "based on the weather forecast, what's burning — the fuel — and the topography," said Rob Seli, a fire behavior analyst at the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Seli is part of a group that is working with the software to predict where some of the worst fires will be in the next few days.

Although the original version of the imaging program has been around since 1994, the Forest Service only started using the newest version this summer. In the past, National Weather Service forecast information wasn't digitized and had to be loaded into the program by hand. Only now, has the software become practical to use.

"That's one of the reasons we're testing this out — to see if we can keep up with the speed of the fires," Seli said. "Recently, we've got a lot more nationwide data available to us. … [We can] do these things quickly and easily, since the data is available now."

The software can also develop digital maps, based on "thousands of different fire simulations of weather scenarios, to determine what effect the uncertainty of the weather has on the fire," Seli said.

But the effectiveness of the program's information can often depend on fire's speed; the faster the fire's speed, the less accurate the program's predictions might be.

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