In 2014, the United States saw 63,612 wildfires covering nearly
3.6 million acres, reports the
National Interagency Fire Center. While that number seems frightening, that figure
is only about 87 percent of the annual average over the past 10 years.
Luckily, wildland firefighters are equipping themselves with
better technologies to spot and put out these wildfires before too much damage
occurs. Check out the following
technological advances that aid wildland
Thermal Imaging Advances
Less than a decade ago, NASA
first began testing a thermal imaging device that would help map the
direction and patterns of the wildfire. Essentially, this type of technology
would make it easier for researchers to study wildfires, which could save time,
resources, and lives. Thermal imaging devices can also help firefighters spot
areas where the undergrowth is still burning but where the fire isn’t giving
off any smoke. These hotspots pose huge risks since they can go unnoticed and
cause the fire to flare up again.
Today, thermal imaging devices have become more readily
available. Seek Thermal, for example, is
a device that you can plug into your smartphone’s USB port and use to track
hotspots. While the company doesn’t mention its practical uses for wildfire
cleanup, it can still be applied to this field. It’s not the most powerful
thing to track hotspots from an aerial view, but devices like this do show
promise for use among firefighters on the ground. These smartphone-compatible
options deliver more affordable alternatives and can allow more people on the
team to carry them during the cleanup.
Fire Surveillance Drones
Today, most wildfires are surveyed by piloted aircrafts.
Unfortunately, this poses a lot of problems for firefighters. In some areas,
for instance, they are unable to fly into a specific location at night, which
means they’re losing a lot of valuable time when the winds die down and the
fire is easier to control.
That’s where unmanned drones can help. Since the military is
already using devices like these, who’s to say we can’t adopt the technology to
study and contain wildfires? These drones could be equipped with regular and
thermal imaging cameras to track the wildfire’s behavior.
As the Washington Times reports, we’ve
already been using drones in rare instances to help in wildfire cases. In 2013,
for instance, a California National Guard Predator drone aided in battling the
Rim Fire around
the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park.
drones are expensive, so they haven’t been fully adopted for firefighting yet,
but as technology advances and drones become cheaper, we’re likely to see more
drones on wildland firefighting teams.
Fire shelters are designed to keep out heat and keep in
breathable air at times when firefighters on the ground get trapped. Ideally,
they’ll increase the firefighter’s chance of survival until a rescue team
arrives. As time moves forward, so does the technology surrounding fire
Geographic explains how these shelters work, saying that, “This latest version
consists of an outside layer made of high-temperature resistant silica cloth
and an inside layer composed of a lightweight, fiberglass scrim cloth. Both
layers are laminated to aluminum foil, which is an excellent reflector of
These shelters are good at protecting people against radiant heat, but
once the flame touches them, the glue begins breaking down.
The firefighting community continues to search for improved ways to
protect themselves if caught in a wildfire. In 2014, SunSeeker launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $150,000 for their new fire
blanket. If created, this blanket would be made of a ceramic material that
wouldn’t burn and could withstand temperatures up to 3,000 degrees
National Geographic explains that precision drops allow
firefighters to parachute in equipment to the first responding firefighters,
who are often called smokejumpers because they arrive at the site of the fire
via parachute. While this response method speeds things up, it’s also quite
dangerous because the precision drops require the planes to fly at such low
The alternative is to develop technologies that would allow
the planes to fly higher before dropping the supplies. As National Geographic
explains, the Forest Service has been looking into a timed device where the
parachute wouldn’t deploy until it reaches a lower altitude, allowing planes to
fly about four times higher than they’re currently flying for precision drops.
You may have thought that virtual reality was all about fun
and games and was somewhat of a futuristic idea. Who would have thought it
would have practical uses in fighting wildfires? Well, it does.
As the U.S. Forest Service
reports, becoming a smokejumper requires extensive training. This training
involves learning about the aircraft, reviewing parachuting safety regulations,
understanding cargo retrieval procedures, and receiving education on similar
To ensure a safe environment for first-time smokejumpers and
those taking a refresher course, some training bases use virtual reality
simulators to provide on-the-ground training for these jumpers, says the U.S.
These simulators are three-dimensional and use the same
characteristics and provide the same performance as a real parachute would in a
live situation. Trainers are able to change the wind speed and other variables
to prepare smokejumpers for real-world jumps in which conditions may be less
While this type of simulator technology has been around for
over two decades, the three-dimensional capabilities are fairly new, and many
training bases are still adopting the technology altogether. As these virtual
reality simulators continue to become more realistic, it’s clear that they’ll
be helpful in preparing new smokejumpers for a parachuting situation before
they have a chance to work with other simulators, like those that drop them to
the ground so they can practice their landing.
While we can’t eliminate wildfire outbreaks, we are finding new
technologies and improving upon the ones we have so that we can combat these
wildland fires easier and more efficiently. What type of technology do you
believe will lead wildland cleanup in coming years?