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,” or so I thought.

I remember approaching several acres (yes, several acres, as in two or three acres, which was “big” to me at the time) of wooded grassland. The department on scene handed me what amounted to a mud flap from a large truck bolted to a stick. “Here, you’ll need this,” were the instructions received from the chief on scene, and I distinctly remember thinking, “You want me to attack that with this?”

But I am not talking about that kind of fire. I am talking about the kind that you see on the news. We have all seen the stories on TV showing our forest land engulfed in flames. From June through October, not a day goes by when we don’t see or read something about wildland fires. Battling from the air or the ground, fighting fires that often spread across thousands of acres requires many years of training, practice and dedication.

Let me be the first to say I do not understand wildland/forestry firefighters. It takes a special breed of folks, equipped with only a few bottles of water and a small shovel, to look at a mountain of flames engulfing acres of land and think, “Yep, I can lick that!” I don’t understand the desire to hike for miles over rugged terrain carrying 50-plus pounds of gear just to get to the spot where you will go to work, then working for hours to clear the line and hoping Mother Nature does not turn her wind-driven attention in your direction – and, if she does, relying on your ability to be a nimble and a small foil tent to protect you. I may not totally understand these firefighters, but I don’t need to understand them to have a huge amount of respect for them and what they do.

Thermal imaging’s role

The challenges of wildland firefighting are unique, and the adoption of technology to solve these problems is also unique. The wildland firefighter has brought much to the table in terms of solutions, including the Incident Management System (IMS), weather monitoring, communications solutions, the global positioning system (GPS) and many others. Thermal imaging is also a technology becoming more prevalent in fighting wildland fires. Thermal imaging can enhance firefighter safety in the air and on the ground, as well as help crews more effectively monitor fire conditions, place personnel in key areas to create control lines and improve the development and control of prescribed burns.

Just spend a few minutes talking to firefighters who battle these fires every day and you will quickly learn how critical the use of thermal imaging is. The Garden Valley Helitack Crew in Idaho consists of 12 firefighters and provides aerial protection to the 2.2 million acres (an area roughly twice the size of Rhode Island) of Boise National Forest. This crew has been using thermal imagers for more than eight years.

I recently talked with the crew’s manager, who shared his insight for using thermal imagers to fight wildland fires. Using a thermal imager (TI) gives members of his crew added reassurance that they are not missing hot spots that could prove a threat. With a thermal imager, the fire’s location and progress can be viewed from an aerial position, regardless of daylight or smoke conditions. This enables precise monitoring of fire progress that would not otherwise be possible. When a hot spot is pinpointed from the air, two to four members of the Helitack Crew are deployed to contain the fire from the ground using a thermal imager. With the TI, accurate assessment of the fire and its spread can be obtained regardless of smoke conditions.

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.