Infrared tech helps crews fight fires |

Infrared tech helps crews fight fires

An infrared photo of the Vasquez Creek fire on June 20, captured from over 20,000 feet up.
Courtesy of East Grand Fire Protection District |

Imagine a tree is struck by lightning, and there is nobody there to see the smoke. The destructive capabilities of wildfires are frightening. Hundreds of thousands of acres can go up in flames, hundreds of homes and businesses can be enveloped and human lives lost.

Now imagine an aircraft, circling 20,000 feet above head, which can help prevent a natural disaster.

This is what fire departments in Colorado are working towards as the multi-mission aircraft (MMA) program, introduced about two years ago, matures.

A small fire broke out June 20 near Vasquez Creek in Winter Park and the MMA was sent in to assess the fire, just one of many applications for the aircrafts.

“It’s been useful in a lot of ways,” said Todd Holzwarth, chief of East Grand Fire Protection District. “It helps the higher-ups in the command post have a plan ready. They see what’s burning and they can put together all of the intel to decide how to fight it, how to slow it down and how to manipulate it so it goes the direction they want it to go.”

The planes are Pilatus PC-12 aircrafts outfitted with infrared and color sensors on cameras that can take detailed photo and video of a fire. A sensor operator from the Division of Fire Prevention and Control Wildland Fire management Stagg accompanies the pilot to operate the camera and help interpret the data collected.

This data is then sent to the ground where fire personnel can further analyze it. Infrared imaging shows up as black and white video, where intense heat signatures are captured as bright white against the cooler black background. This allows fire fighters to outline a perimeter of the fire, as well as search for “hot spots” outside of the perimeter where the flame could further erupt.

“The concern would be something crossed a road or went up a hill, and while we’re all concentrating on the main fire something else is igniting and we’re not looking for it,” said Steve Waldorf, Captain and Operations and Trainer Coordinator for East Grand Fire.

The analysis requires someone who knows what they’re looking at. Sometimes the difference between a hot spot and a large rock that has been collecting heat all day can be negligible.

Images from the plane allow fire fighters to overlay the image against a Google Earth layout of the area. They can then determine the size of the fire, its distance from towns or other structures, and formulate a plan to fight it based on the surrounding topography.

On the Vasquez Creek fire last week it took the aircraft around 30 minutes to reach the area out of its base in Centennial, and firefighters had images of the blaze in under an hour after it was reported. Currently officers don’t have a live feed to the aircraft, although technology is currently being developed to remedy this issue at the Center for Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting in Rifle.

The aircraft will be sent out as a precaution after a lightning storm to determine if any trees are smoldering or enflamed, and to give emergency workers their best chance to prevent a disaster. They are also valuable in helping to direct other aircrafts carrying fire suppressing or retarding material, and in the prioritization of targeting the hottest areas.

Holzwarth says that the planes have practical applications outside of firefighting as well. The planes are sometimes used during blizzards to locate people stuck in cars, or to search for someone missing in the backcountry. Holzwarth was also quick to point out the difficulties and limitations with thermo imaging.

“It’s hard to distinguish what is a person sometimes,” he said. “Often we’re not looking for a body outline, we’re looking for differences in temperatures that indicate something is there. It may just be a foot sticking out from a tree. And depending on how it’s laying there, it might not even look like a foot.”

While the planes are clearly a useful tool in helping to fight and prevent fires, both Holzwarth and Waldorf agreed that they are only tools, and that it is still up to the firefighters to stop the blaze.

“When I first got to [the Vasquez Creek fire] I looked up,” said Waldorf who was a first responder to the fire. “There were 50-foot flames and a ski area right over the hill, with nothing but dry timber in between. It’s another cool tool, but it’s not the end all be all for anything.”

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