Wildland Fires and Thermal Imaging

I remember the first brushfire I ever responded to, as a mutual aid assignment. I was very young and very new. We could see the smoke for miles before we got there. Thick and black, it covered a good portion of the horizon. This was “the big one...


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Because thermal imagers provide enhanced visibility, wildland firefighters can be placed in key locations where control lines must be constructed. The TI operator identifies the hot spots from the air and uses the GPS to map the area so he can radio instructions to his firefighters on the ground. As ground crews deploy, airborne supervisors can monitor their locations and ensure a coordinated and effective response. Without the use of a TI, the firefighters on the ground would have to crawl or stir the brush to find these hot spots. These methods are more time consuming and less effective.

Safer and more effective operations

Equipping ground crews with thermal imagers gives them the ability to monitor fire conditions in their immediate area, providing more localized, advanced warning than may otherwise be possible. When traveling by ground, the firefighters’ vision may be obscured by smoke, but using a TI helps them identify safer travel routes based on terrain or fire movement. This can help crews move safely and effectively when smoke obscures their vision.

As proven by the Helitack Crew, thermal imagers can be effectively used by firefighters both on the ground and in the air. Using a thermal imager in the helicopter gives the crew the added benefit of flying more than 400 feet off the ground, while monitoring the fire. This provides a safe distance for the crew, while still gathering critical information needed to monitor and contain the fire.

The imagers also provide an effective means of night vision. Since the TI does not register light, its picture is consistent regardless of daylight conditions. This can extend firefighting operations and enhance crew safety by improving accountability and providing clear views of surrounding terrain and potential escape routes.

While the dangers faced by wildland firefighters are different than those faced by structural firefighters, the thermal imager is a tool that can benefit firefighters in both types of incidents. By first understanding how a TI can be employed during a wildfire response, and then practicing with it on a regular basis, firefighters can improve their personal safety as well as team effectiveness

BRAD HARVEY is the Thermal Imaging Product Manager at Bullard. He is a veteran of public safety as a firefighter, police officer and paramedic and is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor. Harvey has worked as a high-angle rescue instructor and is a certified rescue technician and fire instructor. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you may email him at brad_harvey@bullard.com.