Published: August 18, 2014
When he thinks of fire maps, fire researcher Phil Riggan thinks of a story.
In it, a Western governor grappling with a catastrophic wildfire asks a firefighter to show him where the fire is. The firefighter points to a map, a classic firefighting tool put together every 12 hours with infrared cameras.
"No," the governor says. "That's where it was last night. That's not where it is now."
When a massive wildfire rages, few tools are more captivating to the public or more important to fire crews than a map. But existing mapping technology relies on infrared images captured once every 12 hours, and only at night, by a U.S. Forest Service aircraft. The lag time from picture-taking to map-printing means firefighters are behind - and in the era of the smartphone, that's not the place to be, Riggan thinks.
"It just shows that there is a really strong need for firefighting crews to have a better view of where the fire is and what its activity is," added Riggan, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist and thermal imaging pioneer based in Riverside, Calif.
While infrared perimeter maps show where the fire is, thermal images, which track hot spots, can show where the fire is going, Riggan said.
Since 2001, Riggan has been part of the push to modernize firefighting by mixing on-the-ground firefighting with thermal images of wildfires. While the Forest Service uses a NIROPS flight, short for National Infrared Operations, to make passes over large fires once a day, Riggan advocates for real-time maps.
"If you are on one side of the fire, you don't really know what's going on on the other," he said. "There's just a lot of confusion that goes on. It's really important that we try to move into a more modern stance here on fire information."
Riggan, who has worked for years on a thermal imaging product called FireImager for the Forest Service, is not alone in his thinking. Last week, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control signed contracts for two aircraft designed to capture thermal images of fires and upload them immediately into a statewide computer system that can feed to firefighters' smartphones or tablets.
The thermal technology will set Colorado apart from other Western states that have made small forays into the world of thermal mapping, state officials say.
Military aircraft often are equipped with sophisticated thermal imaging, Riggan said, but the struggle has been adapting that technology to the firefighting world.
With the exception of some NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration technology, Colorado's sensor planes and the FireImager are unique. In Colorado, a test PC-12 will take to the skies Aug. 31, while the Forest Service sensing model developed by Riggan will be in the air sometime in October, he said.
While Forest Service infrared aircraft can fly only at night - when fires are at their most calm - Colorado's PC-12s can snap thermal images any time. They can fly for hours, using thermal cameras to focus on images as well as video to convey instant fire images to ground crews, said Brian Collins, co-founder of Intterra Inc., a Castle Rock-based company responsible for some of the technology on the planes.
"That really has never happened," he said.
Thermal images can track retardant drops - which typically appear as cooler spots on the image - and photos of fires when they are at their most powerful, often in the afternoon. But the trend toward thermal is part of transformation in firefighting, where technology and traditional firefighting mix.
"In essence, I'm in fire research. . I want to be out during the most active fire periods, in the afternoon," Riggan said. "That, of course, is when firefighters most need to know which homes are being involved, which part of the fire is most active. I am referring more and more to fire intelligence."