Firefighters battling the recent California wildfires employed the latest in high-tech gear, including cutting-edge unmanned military aircraft that helped turn the tide in the massive effort to save homes and lives.
The technology will likely change the way crews fight such fires in the future, officials said.
Organizations such as NASA, the U.S. Air Force, San Diego State University’s Visualization Center – even the American Medical Association and Internet search giant Google – joined more than 15,000 firefighters in Southern California where recent wildfires burned more than a half-million acres and nearly 3,000 buildings.
The participants’ goal was to not only battle the blaze, but also to craft a new way of attacking, and defeating the forest fires of tomorrow.
“This is a very different way of fighting a fire,” Dr. Eric Frost, co-director of the Visualization Center, tells Newsmax. “It is a way of gathering massive information and processing it very quickly and getting it out to the people who can use it.”
For example, unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawks were employed to keep a constant eye on the fire’s front lines. The pilotless high-altitude vehicles, best known for purring along 13 miles above the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, used infrared sky-spy sensors to peer through the thick black smoke.
The data captured by the Global Hawks is instantly relayed to communications centers, where it can be plotted on detailed maps and forwarded to fire officials for use in planning their next moves.
Brig. Gen. James O. Poss told the Los Angeles Times, “We designed these things to locate targets – to help us start fires, not put them out!”
In their first ever use for firefighting, the Global Hawks proved a marked improvement over the use of satellites, which pass overheard only twice daily offering little help with wildfires that are spreading rapidly in unexpected directions.
California fire officials also employed NASA’s prop-driven Ikhana, a 36-foot unmanned drone capable of flying for up to 20 hours. Its sensors peered through the haze to detect fire hot-spots.
“They told firemen where the fires were,” Dr. Frost told Newsmax. “That is very powerful information to have.”
Meanwhile, fire commanders and average citizens could access most of the data by logging in to Google Earth’s mapping system.
“The NASA data was put on top of Google Earth maps,” Dr. Frost said. “This information was free. A homeowner could log on and see where the fire is, and make a decision whether or not to evacuate. He could check roads and see, for example, that his home may not be burning, but his evacuation route is.”
A new broadband network is being created to allow more rapid inter-agency communication of real-time maps and feedback of data into the system.
The Air Force meanwhile is working on a “Rover” laptop computer system to send aerial fire location data right to the front lines of battle. Such a system could prevent firefighter deaths by giving advance warning of when a fire is about to surround a crew.
The AMA was able to use the system to determine where respiratory problems were most likely to be encountered and dispatch medical teams.
“Eventually, when the system is refined, we should be able to combine topography, wind, fire and fuel to predict exactly where the fire is going,” Dr. Frost said, “and have firefighters there before it arrives.”
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