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

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.

Infrared Cameras, Portable Rainstorms

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.

During a recent demonstration in San Bernardino, Calif., the stripped-down 747 sprayed water 500 feet above the San Bernardino International Airport to show how it could be used to fight fires. "We believe we can operate safely at night, and the reason that's important is because fires tend to become more dormant at night," said White.

Will a 747 Work in Real-World Conditions?

Evergreen has invested about $40 million in the project and eventually hopes to make a fleet of five supertankers available for U.S. and international firefighting work. The company has also explored other technologies that would make it easier to operate at night, including forward-looking infrared technology with targeting capabilities, night-vision goggles and helmet-mounted heads-up displays.

Fire officials, however, have questions about whether the large aircraft will be able to perform in high winds and steep terrain.

San Bernardino National Forest fire chief Mike Dietrich recalled the difficulty of using aircraft to fight the "old fire" in 2003. "There were air tankers standing by, but they couldn't get in the air because of the heavy smoke and high winds," he said.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Aviation Chief Mike Padilla told reporters that the plane has yet to be tested in real-time conditions. He wondered about the accessibility of the supertankers. "Whoever has the biggest need will probably get it," he concluded.

Still, the company is hopeful. "The plane is very agile, although it does have limits," said Evergreen's Sam White. He conceded that "we would not put this plane in the same terrain you'd use a helicopter."

It's just one more tool that will likely get its "trial by fire" as the Western wildfire season heats up this summer.