Beleaguered Firefighters Turn to New Technology

In the face of increasingly devastating fires, fire crews take advantage of high-tech tools.

A house burns in the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014, in San Marcos, California, in San Diego County. The blaze incinerated nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed almost 40 homes.


As climate change and drought produce a fire season in the American West that is both longer and vastly more dangerous than past seasons, high tech is increasingly making its way to the flaming front, with the potential to revolutionize the way we fight devastating wildfires.

Facing a fire season that is by some estimates 75 days longer than a decade ago, firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service have been forced to rethink the way we coexist with one of nature's most destructive forces. Increasingly, the experts are turning to drones and 'droids that can see farther, act faster, and provide better real-time data about wildfires than humans can. (Related: "Overwhelming Cause of California Wildfires: Humans.")

Technology has not yet replaced boots and hoses on the ground once a blaze gets going. But with advanced flame-sniffing sensors that wait in the woods or that patrol the skies, technology is becoming the first line of defense against the kind of fires that devastate entire communities. (Related: "New Wildfire Science Shows That Small Steps Can Save Homes, Communities.")

In California, this hasn't been an especially severe fire season—Cal Fire has responded to 600 more fires than a year ago through July 26, but 27,700 fewer acres have burned. But with January fires in northern California, vast swaths of the state ablaze in February, and abnormally big fires by May in Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Los Angeles Counties, authorities worry there may be no "season" to speak of anymore.

"We've got a runaway train here," says Max Moritz, co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley. "You've got all the trajectories headed in the wrong direction. Climate is changing, while our wildland-urban interface continues to expand."

Indeed, the American wilderness is being incinerated at a rate more than twice as fast as the rate in the 1980s. At a burn rate of about 6.4 million acres per year between 2010 and 2013, the increase alone is equivalent to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks being burned to their stumps every year.

Potential technological solutions exist, but they require funding. "We spend billions of dollars annually on fire suppression," Moritz says. "The fraction that goes into pre-fire research and development to help us understand and solve the problem is so small it's painful."

Fire crews battle the Cocos fire in San Marcos on May 15. San Diego County saw ten major fires and several minor ones that month alone.


High-Tech Sensors

This month, Santa Barbara's Mission Canyon began installing nine high-tech sensors that "look like R2-D2" and can see and smell fire up to a mile away.

In 2009, a fast-moving wildfire raced through the canyon, leveling dozens of homes. Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Michael Dyer, who was initially skeptical of any firefighting technology more advanced than a Dalmatian, now concedes, "Even us old dogs have to catch up and look at technology."

That's happening from San Diego, where the local power company has installed 142 mini-weather stations to spot "fire weather," to Oregon, which will soon deploy a small drone over fires to gather intelligence. Los Angeles County recently added a third U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter to its air fleet, retrofitted to fight fires with a snorkel that can suck up 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water a minute and engines that can withstand heat of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (815 degrees Celsius).

From New York's Central Park to Yellowstone National Park, drones have become a popular tech toy for hobbyists, who aren't always mindful of the hazards they can pose. During last year's mammoth Rim fire around Yosemite National Park, an MQ-1 Predator drone operated by the California Air National Guard gave Cal Fire commanders an overview of the fire's progression, even allowing them to spot small embers likely to touch off new blazes. (Related: "Opinion: Don't Log Burned Forests—Let Nature Heal Them.")

In a fire that big, with crews scattered across the 257,314 acres that burned, drones can help create a clearer picture of conditions on the ground. "For us to get good progression maps during a fire is actually quite difficult," Moritz says. "Things are changing, there's a lot of smoke, the wind speeds tend to be high and turbulent. Drones can keep an eye on the flaming front."

The Predator drone—which carries Hellfire missiles when deployed over a battlefield—must be authorized by the U.S. Secretary of Defense each time it's flown in the United States. It hasn't been pressed into duty again since the Rim fire, and like most cash-strapped states, California is hoping to figure out high-tech alternatives that are less expensive than the Predator.

There are already more affordable models. The Oregon Department of Forestry bought an off-the-shelf drone for $1,800, and expects to use it for low-altitude surveillance of fires near the point of ignition.

"We're thinking something like this might be the missing link that enables us to get a better view into where the fire is going, what kind of fuels are burning," says Brian Ballou, an Oregon Department of Forestry fire prevention specialist, "while keeping our firefighters out of danger."

But drones are no panacea. Oregon's has remained grounded while its pilot awaits flight certification. And sometimes drones can cause problems of their own, as Cal Fire discovered while fighting the 4,200-acre Sand fire in July. A private citizen who wanted to see the fire for himself sent his "quadcopter" aloft, interfering with water-dropping helicopters.

Tiny, radio-controlled quadcopters that sell for a few hundred dollars nearly wreaked havoc on the state's aerial effort. "People had little cameras hanging off those, and they were flying them in while we were dipping helicopters," says Janet Upton, Cal Fire's deputy director of communications. "One of those things in a tail rotor, and people are going to die."

"Even if we invest a billion dollars in drone technology, we're never going to put out every single fire," says Matthew Thompson of the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station. "Fire management is more than a question of technology. It's a social issue, it's an economic issue, it's a political issue. And it's not going to go away."

Network of Weather Stations

As important as airpower is, fire scorches the earth, and that's where more firefighting technology needs to be.

When catastrophic fires in 2007 killed 14 people, destroyed 1,500 homes, and forced a million people to evacuate in San Diego County, downed power lines were blamed for much of the property loss. After settling claims from more than 2,500 lawsuits, San Diego Gas and Electric decided to build its own network of weather stations on virtually every hilltop in town.

The utility acknowledged that its equipment started the fires but denied responsibility, maintaining that the blazes, which scorched nearly a million acres, were a result of high winds and low humidity. To prevent future disasters, the company created a network of 142 weather stations to monitor wind speed, direction, and humidity—conditions that drive the worst fires—allowing crews for the first time to work from detailed "fire weather" maps.

As good as fire crews have become at containment, the most effective firefighting tool of all remains monitoring and prevention. Oregon has been steadily replacing its manned lookouts with towers of cameras that essentially monitor the forest night and day. Using infrared technology, the camera arrays give a GPS fix on where new fires are located.

Santa Barbara's nine experimental FlameSniffer units, designed to be placed atop electric utility poles, use infrared and thermal imaging to see a mile in any direction. Unlike pure camera arrays, Sniffer units don't begin looking around the neighborhood with cameras until smoke-detecting sensors are triggered; then they start sending pictures to a command center in a nearby fire station. The units initially triggered privacy concerns among residents, but if the system receives the support of county supervisors this month as expected, the system is scheduled to become operational by September 1.

The "fire bots" were designed in Australia after the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 that claimed 173 lives there, and are able to withstand temperatures of up to 905 degrees Fahrenheit (485 degrees Celsius). That way, their built-in weather stations can continue to stream data even if Santa Barbara's infamous Sundowner winds are pushing a wall of fire toward them. If that wall hits a sensor, it's considered an honorable death.

"It's like an airbag," says FlameSniffer managing director Cameron McKenna. "I don't think you're going to complain when your airbag goes off if it's saved your life."

The FlameSniffers cost $20,000 per unit, but Santa Barbara's fire chief says he wouldn't mind barbecuing a unit or or two if lives and property are saved. "This stuff costs a lot of money," Dyer says, "so it had better work."