5 Technological Advances in Wildland Fire Fighting

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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 firefighters.

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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Better Fire Shelters

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 shelters.

National 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 radiant heat.”

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 Fahrenheit.

Improving Precision Drops

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 altitudes.

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.

Virtual Reality

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 topics.

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. Forest Service.

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 than ideal.

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?

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