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A house burns at the Cocos fire on May 15, 2014 in San Marcos, California.

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.

Photograph by David McNew, Getty

Bruce Newman

for National Geographic

Published August 11, 2014

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, California May 15, 2014.
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.
Photograph by Sam Hodgson, Reuters

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."

8 comments
R Addison
R Addison

While measuring devices of the computerized measurements sort are equitable for relating to fires, they may have to compete w the negativity from strontium-90 and aluminum-oxide as well as stearate-Barium of chem-Trails. CHEM-tRails deplete oxygenate in stratosphere.


What can be done to measure moisture levels six to eight  times daily w computers balanced?

Pulak DE
Pulak DE

It is great to read about use of Robots with Fire Sniffers

john Duczek
john Duczek

Living in Australia, we live with Bush fires every year.  Fires are an integral  part of Nature, they must be allowed to do the job which they have done since the year dot....Climate Change will call for a total rethink of our relationship with Nature....It is a natural thing to have small fires burn regularly, the problem has been and is; that by inhibiting small fires, we end up with Monumental fires which consume everything in their path that can burn.  When the white man first came to Australia there weren't many huge fires but there were many small fires. The small wallabies and kangaroos and other herbivores kept grazing on the under storey  grasses and plants so there wasn't the huge fuel load available to sustain the huge fires.  I assume the same scenario was repeated in the USA. When the white man hunted out and either chased out or killed these creatures then everything changed. Huge Fires started by lightening or other burned from one side of the continent to the other driven by the winds and only went out when the fuel load was spent. From memory, those terrible fires in the State of Victoria back in 2009 were caused by Arsonists and Electric power Poles cables clashing together sparking. You have a hard time catching Arsonists but, all electric cable in fire prone areas should be compelled to be underground, none above ground. No if; buts or too expensive. If people wish to live in areas prone to fire; they will have to pay more,  it must be the case, make them pay to have all  neighbour hoods the same, all power underground. Along with this action, Home designs must be fire resistant ant the least or fireproof and they are the only designs which will be Allowed to be built....  One thing is for sure you can live in fire areas, but the homes and buildings must be built to cope with it. There should be underground  bunkers for communities too.  As for livestock, they must have preserved areas which are strictly regulated to be  burnt off for the livestock to be fenced in should a fire come. The burnt off areas once burnt off won't support fire again and will give a safe area at least. As for Gardens they must be designed  near the house with plants which will not support the flames. There are a number of plants which can do the job.  Humans can live safely in all areas of Hurricanes, Very hot areas, Tornadoes, Fires even earthquakes and floods. The point is the design of the building must suit the areas. So far we have done a pretty bad  job overall. Unless we do adjust our building to live with Nature, than we will pay a huge toll and it will go on till we wake up...... Mother Nature has been around for a long time, the Human race has been here for a blink of the eyes in that term, we have to learn her rules to live on this planet.....

Stephen Aske
Stephen Aske

I am all for high tech concerning wild fires but lets not lose sight of the fact that some fires should be allowed to burn for benefit of the land. I said land, not lives or homes!

Stephen Aske
Stephen Aske

High tech against fires is a very good thing but lets not lose sight of the fact that some fires should be allowed to burn. The benefit to the land is evident. I said land, not lives and homes!

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

Everyone knows the solution and not one person wants to talk about it.  The solution is to not sell land to people to build on in fire prone areas.  Why should taxpayers suffer these costs if the majority of the fires are of human origin?  It's like supporting arsonists.   It's just like building on dunes on,the Gulf, Pacific and East Coasts and we pay for hurricane damage.  Stupid.  Ban building.  


That means people may go elsewhere to live, start companies and work.  The USA has lots of land available for that is NOT farm land.  And while I'm ranting away, why build homes and barns above ground in areas where tornadoes are prone to display their fury?  


There should be a national discussion about too many people concentrated in certain areas.  What about a discussion of too many people?  Oh, no, we can't go there, can we? 


Or can we? 

Jann Elaine Eleodinmuo
Jann Elaine Eleodinmuo

Just exactly where is this fabled land you speak of that is apparently impervious to all natural disasters? I would love to build a home there.

Matt Z
Matt Z

@Gwendolyn Mugliston And we need to ban building wherever a Hurricane can damage it! And of course, no building where an Earthquake happens. And because so much flood insurance comes from the government; building anywhere a flood can happen is out, too.

I think that leaves a few square miles in the Nevada Desert all 350 million of us can live on. 

Over-reaction is not the solution. What we need is sustainable, low risk landscaping- keeping vegetation away from houses, clearing brush, and using non-flammable landscaping like gravel, and rocks to form fire barriers. We need to encourage building from high-ignition point materials, encourage development of water storage systems that firefighters can use (that means a pool), and develop neighborhoods that allow fast access to fires, as well as a road system that provides permanent fire breaks.


Lastly, and most importantly, we need to start allowing these fires to NATURALLY occur. This is how nature renews the forest and naturally manages brush build-up. If we let fires burn, there will be less ignitable materials, and ultimately, less fires.

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