Fierce Wildfire Season Ahead, But PDAs, 747s May Help

ByABC News
June 12, 2006, 1:04 PM

PARK CITY, Utah, June 12, 2006 — -- A snowy winter enhanced by early summer thunderstorms has left the peaks of the intermountain West lush and emerald green. Aspens are in full foliage; the pines have never looked better. Fire danger in the mountains is considered low.

But that's not the case in the Southwest or in the Great Plains, where a lingering drought has dried up prairie grasses.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires have already devoured 2.5 million acres -- four times the average for this time of year and more than double the total by this date in 2000.

But fire crews will have some high-tech new tools this summer to help protect homes and businesses.

For the first time, many firefighters will have new handheld PDA computers that can download weather conditions via satellite link.

Several years ago, Sandia National Laboratories developed ways to model fire behavior using wind speed, terrain, temperature, humidity, and other variables, but now crews in the field can apply them. A fire team in Moreno Valley, Calif., began using the technology this spring to fight fires for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

High-definition, infrared cameras onboard helicopters also help firefighters. In Los Angeles, the devices beam up-to-the-minute location and temperature data to firefighters on the ground. That information should allow fire commanders to make better, safer decisions on the path of fires and where to position their firefighting assets.

But one of the more intriguing firefighting efforts is a supersize implementation of a familiar technology. Evergreen International Aviation hopes to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to certify its modified Boeing 747-200 Supertanker firefighting aircraft later this summer. The aircraft can release 24,000 gallons of water or fire retardant slurry through four nozzles.

"We're basically bringing the rainstorm to the fire," said Sam White, Evergreen's senior vice president.