Fighting Wildfires with Data and Technology

Time, where a wildfire will likely spread and what’s in its path are all key components for fighters to know, reports

In the past couple of years, firefighters have gained a significant advantage: aircraft equipped with heat-detecting infrared sensors and special communication equipment now can relay to firefighting teams on the ground, in minutes, a fire’s precise location, as well as where new “hotspots” are cropping up, even before they burst into visible flame.

Monitoring wildfires with infrared sensors from aircraft isn’t new, but the level of detail and speed with which this data gets transmitted to firefighting teams has been revolutionized.

Wildfires generally have a perimeter marked by an advancing line of flame. But burning debris gets sucked up into the column of hot air over the fire and deposited ahead of the fire line, often causing new spot fires where they land, up to half a mile away. These hotspots also can be caused by burning debris rolling downhill on a steep slope. Left unchecked, new hotspots can smolder invisibly for hours or days.

How does this data get to firefighting operations so fast? Generally it’s transmitted over the Internet (via broadband or wireless carrier networks) on a secure website, which decision-makers and emergency responders can access via computers or smartphones. But where a direct connection to these conventional networks isn’t available, that data can travel the “last mile” by packet radio, a technology long used by amateur radio operators.

Meanwhile, brand new technology is also having an impact on fighting wildfires.

Unmanned aircraft — sometimes called “drones” — also are starting to play a bigger role in fighting wildfires. According to Aero-News Network, as of June the Federal Aviation Administration had authorized nearly 60 private and government entities to operate unmanned aircraft systems in domestic airspace for many purposes, including fighting wildfires.

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