From KUNC (Scott Franz):
Sitting in front of a large computer monitor in the back of a Pilatus PC-12 airplane parked at the Centennial Airport, firefighter Adam Hanson says his work feels more important this year than it ever has before.
He flies in this plane alongside a small crew armed with an infrared camera that can detect an unattended campfire from 25 miles away.
And this year, the plane and its camera have detected at least 206 fires no human could see…
Bruce Dikken, who manages the state’s fleet of firefighting aircraft, says dozens of fires could have become bigger ones last summer had the camera not detected them shortly after they started…
Many are caused by lighting strikes in very remote areas.
A year after the East Troublesome Fire advanced with unprecedented fury and became one of the state’s biggest and most destructive blazes, the state’s firefighters say there is more pressure to detect and extinguish fires before they grow…
And Dikken says the state has been improving the aerial reconnaissance program since it started seven years ago.
“We can create a fire perimeter, draw a line around the edge of it, and then we can send that out to anybody that has access to the internet so they know where that fire’s at right now, including having pictures and video of the fire activity so they know what to expect,” he says.
But even with two of these infrared cameras monitoring the landscape around the entire state, blazes like the East Troublesome and the Cameron Peak fires convinced lawmakers this year they needed more tools to join the fight.
Looking to the skies
The most immediate step the state took in response to Colorado’s record fire season last year was ordering a $24 million aircraft called a Firehawk.
It’s a Sikorsky, military-grade helicopter modified to quickly drop water on approaching flames…
Colorado’s first Firehawk is currently being built in a hangar in Englewood and will take to the skies next year.
In the meantime, engineers in Colorado have been busy this summer testing and developing a brand-new technology they say is starting to revolutionize how firefighters battle wildfires down on the ground.
Adapting battlefield tech
Brad Schmidt starts a program on his laptop at the Centennial Airport and small dots start rapidly moving around a map.
Schmidt helps develop firefighting technology at his office in Rifle with the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting.
He’s demonstrating the TAK app, a smartphone program that allows firefighters to see the location of their colleagues, fire engines and even aircraft in real-time.
“They’ve never had this type of real-time information before, and some of them have been working in fire for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “Typically, they’ll get one map of the fire every 24 hours, and a lot of cases it literally is a paper map of the fire.”
The smartphone app was originally developed by the military to give soldiers a better idea of what was happening on the battlefield.
And Schmidt says this new digital platform brings lots of benefits to firefighters.
“You’re out in the woods. You might not know at a fork in the road which way to go,” he said. “And rather than having to talk on a voice radio for a couple of minutes to figure out which direction, you could just look at your phone and see exactly where your boss is that that needs you to come down and meet with them.”
Schmidt says he tested the technology this year on the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County near Steamboat Springs, as well as a large blaze in California.