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Sean Triplett

Sean Triplett stands next to the South Sugarloaf Fire camp’s Dashboard.

OWYHEE — The image of wildland firefighters may be a line of men with Pulaski grubbing out a fire line but as computers and technology become more pervasive in our lives, it is only natural that technology should be helping firefighting. The individual firefighter with a Pulaski is still needed but he is being supported more and more by technology.

Sean Triplett is the Geospatial & Resource Information Management Group Leader with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise and is at the forefront of this firefighting technology boom. I spoke to him at the South Sugarloaf fire camp in Owyhee.

Firefighters need to have accurate data showing fire size, location, and direction of expansion. One way they receive help is a technology called MODIS, which stands for Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer. Two satellites, named Terra and Aqua, are in polar orbits so they pass overhead several times each day. Heat sensing instruments are one of their 30 data gathering functions. They detect active fire and burned areas and send to earth the GIS coordinates of these spots.

Not only firefighters can see this data. During the South Sugarloaf fire, I daily checked a website called InciWeb. It displays a map showing all active fires across the West. Modis dots show spots of active burning around each fire and clusters can show fire expansion. Red dots show burning within the last six hours, orange in 12 hours and yellow older.

For more precise fire mapping, the U.S Forest Service has two aircraft fitted with infrared cameras. They fly at night and at high altitudes. During fire season, they fly each night manned by crews formed of a cohort of six available pilots. The aircraft may be based in Boise, Ogden or Spokane.

Night flights offer maximum contrast in heat signatures when fire activity is minimal, and avoid other air traffic over the fires. During a busy fire season, they map dozens of fires each night, being able to cover 300,000 acres in an hour. Before takeoff, a route is planned out to cover the fires that requested mapping and the route includes places to land to refuel. Their recorded data is sent to the ground where GIS technicians on each fire use that data to produce an up-to-date map.

The U.S. Forest Service is also experimenting with unmanned aircraft to add to the capabilities of these two aircraft, and with using drones to map individual fires.

Details such as containment lines and closed roads are added to these fire maps and the results displayed on what is called the Dashboard, a computer screen in the meeting room. Printed maps are also part of the daily Incident Action Plan and maps are displayed online for public viewing.

Team leaders on the ground carry iPads so they can input data to show their progress and location. Any time they have cellphone coverage, data can be sent to the fire camp, where it is automatically added to the Dashboard. During my visit, the Dashboard was displaying the progression of dozer line repair, including stats on the distance covered and that remaining.

Sean said the greatest need for future technology is to improve individual communication. Firefighters still use old technology radios that allow only verbal communication. The U.S. Forest Service is experimenting with using iPads to share photos, data, weather and maps with other firefighters on a fire. The difficult part is developing a network that will allow communication around a fire.

A device is being developed that would create a network between firefighters like a mini-Internet. Two devices on opposite sides of a mountain could communicate by routing through other devices located around the mountain.

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