August 18, 2014 Updated: August 18, 2014 at 3:20 pm
State officials closed the deal last week to add two rare multimission aircraft to Colorado's Firefighting Air Corps, a move that will usher in a new age of tech-savvy firefighting.
The two PC-12s will be equipped with remote sensing thermal technology designed to see through smoke, work day and night and provide real-time maps to firefighters on the ground. The planes are part of a firefighting software system adopted by the state after the destructive fires along the Front Range in the summers of 2012 and 2013.
"It's a game-changer," said Rocco Snart, acting chief of the division's Wildland Fire Management Section. "This is new in the nation."
The sensors in the planes surpass the technology used by the U.S. Forest Service to map fires. While some California counties contract thermal flights, Colorado's PC-12s make it the first state to invest in its own thermal planes, available statewide.
Snart hopes they will become a national resource, flying over fires in federal and state lands around the West. The Division of Fire Prevention and Control expects to put one PC-12 in the sky by Aug. 31, Snart said.
"There were probably many missions that we could have had in the last week, in and out of the state, had they been available (earlier)," Snart said.
For Colorado Springs residents, the planes might have a special significance.
The technology was inspired, in part, by the struggle to find the Waldo Canyon fire and the need to give firefighters live pictures.
The fire, the second-most destructive in state history, destroyed 347 homes and killed two people in June 2012.
Firefighters searched for the fire for more than seven hours over two days, not finding it until a black smoke plume unfurled around noon June 23, 2012, immediately triggering evacuations in western Colorado Springs.
Too often, firefighters chase distant smoke plumes without a sense of where flames are burning, experts say.
The search for the Waldo Canyon fire was no different - crews combed the foothills west of Colorado Springs after smoke was reported and declared they couldn't find flames a mere 20 minutes before smoke erupted from the mountainside.
With the help of planes such as the PC-12s, guaranteed to reach anywhere in the state within an hour of takeoff from their Centennial base, finding the Waldo Canyon fire might have been much simpler.
"Waldo is a fire that matches the sort of problem we're seeing," said Brian Collins, whose Colorado-based company Intterra Inc. provides software for the PC-12s. "It was an ignition event that was unknown - in terms of where it occurred."
Rather than having fire crews hike or drive around looking for flames they can't see, the planes can be their eyes in the sky, Collins said.
"What the aircraft can do is find possible fire sources and send those to the engines," he added.
A better option
For years, the U.S. Forest Service has used a system called NIROPs, short for National Infrared Operations, to fly over fires at night and capture infrared images. The pictures piece together a perimeter map, updated once every 12 hours.
The PC-12s' sensors will take thermal images of fires, which could be immediately uploaded to a statewide computer system. Along with helping find the starting point of fires, it could provide detailed pictures of where fires are burning at their hottest and guide firefighting strategy.
That kind of detail, Snart said, would have helped during the Black Forest fire in June 2013. Black Forest erupted east of Interstate 25 on June 11, a searing hot, windy day that fueled flames. The fire destroyed nearly 500 homes and killed two people, surpassing Waldo Canyon to become the state's most destructive fire.
"(Thermal images) could have helped paint the picture for all the resources on that fire a little better," Snart said. "Like, 'we should have started these people off Shoup Road instead of put them in middle.' It helps you see the tactical opportunity."
While devastated neighborhoods have been rebuilding and cleaning up from two summers of devastating fires such as Waldo Canyon, High Park and Black Forest, state legislators have tried to arm the state for a future of fire.
The Legislature this year set aside $20 million for the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, which, in addition to the two PC-12s, pays for four helicopters, contracted from Trans Aero Helicopters, Homestead Helicopters, Brainerd and Firehawk Helicopters. Part of the funds will also go toward two Single Engine Air Tankers.
The PC-12s will be operated and equipped by Sierra Nevada Corp., a Centennial company, and connected to software designed by Intterra.
The PC-12s will cost the state $9.7 million to contract for a year, Snart said.
The aircraft are part of Colorado's bid to become one of the more technologically savvy Western states and will make it one of two nationwide to plug all wildland firefighters into one computer system.
In June, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control launched the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (COWIMS), which creates a database of firefighting data available to all crews. With the system, firefighters can upload lists of resources - helicopters, number of crews, for instance - and look at fire maps and weather conditions on their smartphones and tablets.
Now, with the PC-12s soon to be in the skies, fire bosses will have thermal images sent straight to their phones.
Snart has set a goal for the PC-12s - one hour from the moment the aircraft takeoff to when crews have images before their eyes.
Ideally, the planes will be available to anyone in the state, but the PC-12s will fly only after the Division of Fire Prevention and Control has devised a mission plan, Snart said.
"We could use (thermal) to look for heat signatures on the landscape if all they see is intermittent smoke and nobody can seem to quite find it," Snart added. "Maybe we can fly over it and see. Maybe it will be big enough that we'll be able to find it."
The planes are designed to clear communication hurdles, a perennial problem in the firefighting world where state, local and federal crews operate on different radio wavelengths. While the sensors are uploading thermal images, the pilots can report what they see to the ground crews, Snart said.
Sierra Nevada Corp. will provide a plane equipped similarly to the PC-12s at the end of August for the state to use until it can get the contracted planes ready, Snart said.
While California's state fire service, CalFire, is known for its army of engines and crews, Colorado's solution to firefighting is a more technological one, aimed at prevention, Collins thinks. It's also drawing from hard-earned wisdom from past struggles with fires such as Waldo Canyon.
"We're not running out and buying a bunch of apparatus," he said. "We're finding it (fire) early and assessing it early and trying to get it when it's manageable rather than respond to it when it's a problem."