Is there a fire? How big? Where is it going?
When it comes to fighting fast-moving wildfires, information is key and until recently data from the sky had to wait.
Oftentimes, an air crew flies over a blaze, capture images, lands and works the data – soaking up crucial time as firefighters on the ground battle for a while without vital information.
But now a small plane equipped with a state-of-the-art camera and a satellite sits at the ready at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, poised to deliver real-time infrared video and photos to decision-makers on the ground – in seconds.
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Right to firefighters’ cell phones.
The Beechcraft King Air 200 is staffed around the clock. An identical plane sits in Sacramento, though it is primed to go up only 12 hours a day.
Between them, they can cover the entire state, each capable of hustling to a fire at 260-miles per hour.
A King Air 200 aircraft equipped with a FLIR 380HD and an Overwatch TK-9 cameras at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos on Friday, January 15, 2021. The system transmits video, maps and images of burning fires in real time via satellite to firefighters on the ground and directly to their phones or computers. The Orange County Fire Authority hosts FIRIS, a pilot program that has enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology for wildfires throughout Southern California and around the state. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Joel Lane is no stranger to how things used to be.
With more than 40 years in the U.S. Forest Service, he has spent half of that on the ground with hotshot crews. The other half has been tied to the air, now as an air-attack-group supervisor with the Orange County Fire Authority.
Lane is an air traffic controller of sorts: He helps orchestrate attacks on fires.
“Up until just recently, (air crews) had to land, find a computer, find internet, put in a thumb drive, make their maps and send them to a computer,” Lane said. “But to us, 30 minutes or one hour is like reading yesterday’s newspapers.
Erik Rodriguez, operations lead for the fire program at AEVEX Aerospace, operates the FLIR 380HD and an Overwatch TK-9 cameras on board a King Air 200 aircraft based at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos on Friday, January 15, 2021. The system transmits video, maps and images of burning fires in real time via satellite to firefighters on the ground and directly to their phones or computers. The Orange County Fire Authority hosts FIRIS, a pilot program that has enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology for wildfires throughout Southern California and around the state. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
“With this,” he said, “we’re able to have them (the images) within seconds.”
From October until mid-April, the state is paying about $7.2 million to have the planes in California firefighters’ arsenal. The state could extend that, or take a break from the planes.
When the wind-driven Bond fire hit Silverado Canyon in early December, the new technology was put to use.
Once airborne, the flight crew, typically three strong, used the infrared- and sensory-camera systems to create fire-perimeter and behavior maps among other visuals, and sent them with the onboard satellite system.
Data can be livestreamed, too.
The special camera created images of the Bond burning in one spot, but also projected, with different colors, the expected spread and size with forecasted times. Using infrared, the crew can map the perimeter of the fire and detect hotspots.
Software considers such factors as terrain, weather, wind, brush, trees, burn scars, structures and estimated pockets of people.
The photos show the areas around the epicenter, how many acres the fire could consume and how many homes it could hurt. With that insight, firefighters can better tell which homes must be evacuated.
“This really helps figure out where to get people out and where to take them to,” Lane said. “It was highly accurate.”
As many as 25,000 residents were told to flee their homes.
On some fires, the crew takes to the air multiple times.
Forecasting where a blaze can go is crucial and some expert firefighters do it manually, said Carlos Calvillo, assistant chief at the Los Angeles Fire Department.
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“A (fire-behavior analyst) would manually use information, like weather, topography, the last time the area burned … and come up with calculations,” Calvillo said. “Now, you have a computer that does that in minutes.”
Calvillo, a 33-year veteran at the LAFD, has been involved with implementing the program with the planes and satellites.
The software helps firefighters make solid predictions.
“The model paints a very clear picture of the threats of the incident,” he said. “And that becomes a very powerful tool.”
As the fire changes, so do the models and projections, he said, allowing firefighters to alter their plans in tune with the blaze.
“For the incident commander on the ground … they’re just looking up at a big ball of fire burning up the hill,” Lane said.
Oftentimes when fatalities and accidents occur during fires, Lane said, it’s during chaotic periods when no one knows exactly where the fire is going. He hopes these cameras and technology become the norm and help avoid that.
“I think this has the capability of actually saving lives, not only on the firefighter side but on the civilian side,” he said.