Fire and Smoke: Firefighting goes high-tech
Editor's note: This is Part 4 of a five-day series on devastating wildfires and their effects on Southern Oregon done in partnership with KTVL Channel 10. Also see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Chris James watched the July 15 assault that pummeled southwest Oregon with 3,000 lightning strikes, starting 145 fires, unfold in great detail. But he wasn’t on a mountaintop or in a plane above the storm. His vantage point was a small room at the Oregon Department of Forestry offices in Central Point, where monitors broadcast the views of a 22-camera network.
It’s called the detection center, and ODF employees who man its viewing stations are constantly on the lookout for just-sparked wildfires.
“Typically, what we’re looking for are slight movements,” James says while gesturing at a bank of monitors that displays multiple views of the region’s hazy, forested landscape.
Each monitor contains four pictures that rotate through on the screens and are spaced over time, giving ODF workers the ability to see fires.
“We’re looking at those pictures for any sign that we don’t recognize, that we haven’t seen before, and that keys us up on smoke,” says James, a detection center supervisor.
Once a fire is spotted, employees can switch the camera into a live mode and zoom in so they can investigate further, then inform the appropriate dispatch agency. Some of the screens serve different purposes: a real-time lightning tracker, a satellite that monitors smoke, another that monitors heat. But the room’s primary purpose is having eyes on the terrain to spot the movement and smoke that spell fire.
“(The) pictures are all taken within two minutes,” James says. “So our dispatchers are looking through the entire district in two minutes with fresh new images. ... So because of that time frame, we’re basically able to spot something within two minutes.”
The room still has that new detection center smell, a fully-staffed venture ODF started just last year. The agency hopes to add more cameras to the network. Officials are looking at another five to 10 sites to install the devices. Two more cameras are set for installation within the next year, with one going in off Highway 140, the other west of Mount Ashland. Onion Mountain is another area under consideration.
On July 15, it was all hands on deck at the center.
“We staffed with everybody we possibly could in here,” James says, gesturing to a dispatch radio that occasionally squawks with communications. “Right now you’re hearing traffic every now and then. It was constant, and on multiple frequencies.”
The chatter came from every fire agency responding to reports of lightning, and all those communications played out in a continuous stream.
Smoke columns began to appear on the monitors. Staffers would confirm their presence, get their location, and reach out to the appropriate dispatch centers.
“We did that, I’m going to say — without exaggerating — probably 80 or 90 times that day, and to different dispatch centers,” James says.
Multiple fires grew following the July 15 storm, and so did the surveillance methods that monitored and mapped them.
The Bureau of Land Management utilized drone technology for a variety of purposes, including infrared heat detection, mapping, and scouting certain areas of terrain for possible fire lines. Unrelated to surveillance — but no less interesting — the agency utilized some of the unmanned aircraft to haul in supplies. The drones also were used for burnout purposes, dropping ping pong balls filled with potassium permanganate and injected with glycol to the ground, which triggered a chemical reaction that ignited the plastic spheres.
“It allows them to burn out a really controlled release of fire,” says Traci Weaver, fire public affairs officer for BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s been pretty interesting this year how much we’ve expanded our unmanned aircraft systems or drones pretty effectively.”
ODF utilized advanced mapping software and mobile technology to give firefighters on the front lines a better lay of the land.
“Our primary mission is to provide for wildland firefighter safety,” says ODF information system specialist Erik Larsen. “So having an accurate spacial picture of the fire while the event is occurring helps make decisions that are both effective and safe for the firefighters.”
The information distribution between the planning and operations sections — those at base and those out on the fireline, respectively — is a two-way street, Larsen says.
“That’s a relatively new thing,” he says. “In the past, it’s been a one-way relationship where operations are on the ground, they come back into the briefing, they exchange information every 12 hours with the planning section, the planning section creates a new map and puts that out. But by the time that’s already out, it’s obsolete.”
Now, both planning and operations continually send and receive information utilizing mobile technology on a two-way channel. “Near real-time,” as Larsen calls it.
“You can think of it like maybe watching a sports game on TV, right? So the players that are on the field are determining the tactics and determining the outcome of the game,” Larsen says. “But then, imagine, if you will, you’re a coach watching that, and you can input into their information about how you want the strategies to unfold.”
To make the maps, Larsen and others use a program called ArcMap. He inputs data from the field, which comes to him in a variety of ways.
“It could come in the form of something as simple as a latitude/longitude communicated over a radio, or a drawing on the back of a napkin, or a description looking at a picture or a paper map,” Larsen says. “You get all sorts of things, and your job as an information systems specialist is to gather that information, interpret it, input it into the software, which outputs a digital map, which can then be printed or distributed digitally to mobile devices.”
Smoke and lightning
National Weather Service meteorologists are also utilizing technology to track weather that can affect firefighting efforts.
Satellites are among them.
Weather Service official Brett Lutz recalls how satellite technology was an asset during the 2014 Beaver Complex as it burned east away from the Greensprings area toward Klamath County. On that day, satellite data showed a pyrocumulous cloud — a cloud that forms because of severe heat billowing up from the ground — building over part of the fire complex. Despite its size, the cloud couldn’t be seen by firefighters from the ground, as it was masked by low-level smoke.
This was a problem, as pyrocumulus clouds can generate lightning and air instability, spurring on the fires that generated them. The satellite view proved vital.
“We did have situations where we could see things on satellite and on radar that were not detectable from the ground, and that was used to provide early heads-up to firefighters to move resources away from the head of the fire,” Lutz says.
Newer satellites also can track wildfire data that include wildfire heat, area, perimeter and power. In some cases, it’s helped spot new fires early when they are still hidden from sight on the ground.
Satellite technology can be of use with regard to predicting smoke patterns. The High Resolution Rapid Refresh smoke modeling software builds models to predict how wildfire smoke is going to act.
Based on heat intensity, wind direction and air movement within the atmosphere, the program predicts smoke concentration and where it will drift up to 37 hours out. Some of those resultant models were shared on the Weather Service’s social media pages this past summer.
“In general it can be very accurate predicting where the smoke will be, especially with wind shifts,” says meteorologist Charles Smith. “It does really well on that.”
Meteorologists are also documenting lightning strikes — such as the thousands that peppered the region on July 15 — and how they affect initial attack and firefighting resources. The agency isn’t to the point where it can offer predictions on how fire seasons may unfold based on lightning strike data, but it’s something officials are working toward.
“That is something that I personally have been interested in: Are there significant weather features that we could basically key in on that would give us a point to say, ‘This is an anomalous event, and therefore we need to prepare accordingly,” Smith says.
Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 541-776-4468. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.