ForestTech Center launches with goal to innovate firefighting
Todd Spain and Ben Miller fixed their ears on the police scanner during Tuesday’s firefighting response for the Kruger Rock Fire near Estes Park.
Spain said that listening to emergency radio traffic, an issue that kept popping up was the struggle to convey and understand where all the different firefighter units were located.
When it comes to wildland firefighting, understanding everyone’s location is critical and possibly lifesaving knowledge that can be hard to come by, especially considering the rugged landscapes where those fires burn.
Seeing a solution, Spain and Miller envision placing sensors on firefighting planes, drones and trucks, which would allow the resources to be easily tracked so that everyone fighting a fire knows exactly where they are and where everyone else is.
The vision to find and implement these types of firefighting improvements is at the heart of the newly launched ForestTech Center.
“We’re very worried about increase of wildfires in Colorado and what they’ve cost us,” Spain said. “We want to see if we can prevent them and help them not become anther East Troublesome.”
The East Troublesome Fire burned through Grand County more than a year ago with unprecedented growth of nearly 100,000 acres in just 24 hours, becoming the second biggest wildfire in state history.
The Advanced Mobility Collective, of which Spain is the executive director, has partnered with the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, where Miller is the director.
The two groups have now launched the ForestTech Center, which is currently digitally based in Winter Park.
The groups describe the ForestTech Center as a catalyst for public and private organizations to accelerate the testing and adoption of new and better firefighting practices.
“It’s not a research tank or a think tank,” Spain said. “It’s an action tank.”
Other projects, such as understanding the microclimate around fires, improving wildfire prediction modeling, detecting fires earlier and identifying the best places to mitigate fires, are all topics the center could pursue.
Spain described another study underway that will be a deep dive into the total cost of wildfires in Colorado, reaching beyond the obvious, calculating harmful effects of a fire, including the loss of tourism and the increase in childhood asthma cases due to the smoke.
Spain added that some projects are already underway and could be deployed as early as next year.
“It’s pretty amazing to see what we’ve already started to do,” he said.
The research will come from a collaboration of public and private entities — from universities to corporations and technology companies. Many are already partners with the Advanced Mobility Collective.
Spain said he expects those partnerships to grow substantially, allowing the ForestTech Center to sort through some of the best new technologies and implement solutions.
He added that this type of work can expand beyond forest fires to include other emergencies, such as flooding and mudslides, which also strained Colorado’s infrastructure this summer.
Work is underway to find a physical location for the ForestTech Center, and Spain said that it could land in Grand County. He said he sees a lot of companies coming to Grand if the ForestTech Center ends up being based here, calling it a big opportunity for Grand and the state.
“My dream long term is a technology ecosystem with higher paying jobs and careers up here, allowing people to work from home locally in high tech and be able to find places they can actually afford to live,” Spain said.
The ForestTech Center is part of the Grand County Economic Digital Resiliency Program, which Spain presented to county commissioners back in June.
His Advanced Mobility Collective is an initiative of the Wireless Research Center to grow economic development and public benefit.
Along with the ForestTech Center, the Wireless Research Center is also looking to build a Digital Workforce Development Center and increase access to broadband.
Efforts continue on the workforce center, with the group pursuing funding for the project and building community connections.
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