Wildfire Firefighting Goes High-Tech

From satellites to digital models, researchers play a part in battling blazes.

Oct. 24, 2007 — -- 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.

According to Berni Bahro, a regional fuel specialist with the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service, who is working out of that Southern California command center, the Forest Service is using the software to report on the region's "major" fires — specifically, the Witch fire, north of San Diego; the Harrison fire, south of San Diego; the Ranch fire, near the Angeles Forest; and the Buckweed fire, north of Los Angeles.

When making reports to Cal Fire — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Bahro's team hones in on recommending which areas are in the most danger and should be evacuated first.

"We're trying to understand all the information that is being provided [from the software], and how that information could best be used by fire managers," Bahro said. "We've been really successful, especially on fires of longer duration."

Satellites have also played a key role in fighting California's fires, specifically because of the strength of the Santa Ana winds, according to Bahro.

"When the fires are moving relatively slowly, it's kinda easy to track … where they've been," Bahro said. "But when winds are blowing really hard [as in this case], planes are grounded. We rely on satellite imagery to do that. At least it gives us an idea of where the fire is."

Those satellite images are then downloaded onto Google Earth maps to pinpoint the exact location and movement of the fire, he said.

According to Gary Zunino, director of the Fire Science Academy at the University of Nevada-Reno, which trains firefighters in the latest strategies, infrared imaging can help agencies see how blazes have grown overnight, and to determine its hottest parts.

"Firefighters will use it to plan for the next day — where to put their resources," said Zunino, who is a 20-year veteran in fighting wild-land fires.

Technology has also paved the development of new flame retardants that can be tremendously useful, especially when dropped from the air, he said. New retardants that resemble tin foil can be literally wrapped around structures to prevent them from catching fire.

Similarly, some homeowners, including the head of Dreamworks Jeffrey Katzenberg, have been applying a flame retardant to homes, which helps to protect the house from burning embers long before the fire arrives.Some owners have purchased a fire gel that can be applied with a garden hose.

Regardless of these technologies, Zunino said the principles of fighting the Southern California fires are the same as they have been for years. "They're still putting the wet stuff on the red stuff."

Sentiments like this, however, haven't stopped researchers from pursuing technological innovations to prevent fires altogether, or to at least stop them from getting so out of control.

That's the case for Matt Rahn, executive director of the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, a San Diego State University research field station that is currently evacuated because of its own proximity to the fire.

With a research group from SDSU, Rahn helped oversee the development of electronic sensors that can detect a fire that is only 4 feet by 4 feet, and is up to a quarter of a mile away. The sensors, which are still in the testing phase, work by detecting turbulent carbon dioxide, a gas that is unique to a wildfire. Once the gas is detected, the wireless devices notify appropriate fire authorities.

Although the sensors worked at the reserve, which operates under a Wi-Fi "umbrella," making a space like a national forest wireless could be difficult.

"When you move technology like this out into the wild lands, it's more of a challenge for maintenance and communications," Rahn said. "We're hoping that because [many wild-land areas] don't have manned fire stations anymore, these would serve as 'lookout towers.'"

At $12,000 a pop, the sensors' price present challenges as well, although Rahn says the team is investigating ways to decrease the cost.

Other researchers are using science in a different way to prevent wildfires: by developing city planning suggestions, based on statistical models.

Alexandra Syphard, a recent postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and now at the Conservation Biology Institute in San Diego, believes that, while the dry weather conditions have made Southern California ripe for large wildfires, it's people who have settled in rural areas who are often the initial cause of the blazes.

"Humans cause 98 percent of [fire] ignitions. The more people there are moving into undeveloped areas, the likelier that it is we have ignitions," Syphard said. "We've had a lot of housing development [in Southern California], especially rural development."

Syphard performs a different type of fire modeling. She uses the impact of human development — such as homes and roads — as well as climate and elevation, to determine the likelihood of a fire.

While her studies may not have real-time applications, Syphard believes that the information can be used by city planners when choosing development sites.

As for her own home in San Diego, Syphard hasn't been evacuated — yet.

"It's pretty crazy here. I live really close to a big regional park, so I'm definitely watching the news," she said. "I'm very concerned. What we're experiencing now in San Diego is unlike anything I've seen or heard of before, and I don't know when it's going to stop."

David Muir contributed to this report.