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At least once each year, I try to write a column about wildland firefighting and thermal imaging. I have never lived in an area where my property would be at risk from the devastation of a wildland fire, but I have had the opportunity to work with, train with and observe the elite crews that are given the responsibility of being on the front line when these events occur. I have the deepest respect for these firefighters. The levels of physical fitness, mental determination, camaraderie, training and preparedness are unparalleled.
With a heavy heart, I offer an updated version of a previous column as a tribute to the 19 firefighters who recently gave their lives in Arizona. Although there are many uses for thermal imaging at wildland fires, I want to be clear that I am, in no way, indicating that thermal imaging would have made a difference in the outcome of the tragedy in Arizona. This is why I chose a previous column. Where I have included new information, it is indicated by italics. I pray for healing for the families of these fallen heroes and also pray for the firefighters we lost. Rest well, my brothers.
With training and many years of practice, generations of wildland firefighters have approached fires that are measured in acres or thousands of acres and thought, “Yep, I can do that!” They have battled fires from the air and on the ground, often in poor visibility and with limited support. If things go wrong, “safety” is much farther away than the front porch. If things go very wrong, “safety” may get no better than a small piece of tin foil referred to as a fire shelter. The facts coming to light after the Yarnell, AZ, fire indicate that these shelters are a “last resort” and not infallible. Now, with the emergence of thermal imaging in several wildland firefighting applications, working conditions on the ground and information gathering from the air can be greatly enhanced.
Used properly, thermal imagers can help crews more effectively monitor fire conditions, place personnel in key areas to create control lines, enhance safety and improve the control of prescribed burns. Firefighters can also use thermal imagers to enhance their safety when navigating through smoke and maintain accountability even when separated by distance and poor visibility. The advent of smaller thermal imagers, longer operating times and alkaline battery packs have made the technology more deployable and more applicable to the job of the wildland firefighter.
Although the potential uses for a thermal imager are limited only by the imagination of the firefighter, we will focus on the areas that see the most common use.
• Monitoring the flank and head of the fire from the air. With a thermal imager, the fire’s location and progress will be evident from an aerial position, regardless of daylight or smoke conditions. This enables precise monitoring of fire progress that would not otherwise be possible. By aerial, I am referring to aircraft. We know from the reports that the Yarnell crew had a spotter (the only surviving member), but terrain often makes monitoring from the ground difficult. Accurately sizing-up a fire lets command properly deploy available resources and make more effective stops on otherwise growing fires.
Many times, the flank or head of the fire is obscured in heavy smoke, particularly in wet areas or in the presence of green fuels. With a thermal imager, accurate assessment of the fire and spread can be obtained regardless of smoke conditions. The ability to monitor fire progress during low-light conditions means that crews can begin operations earlier in the day and end later in the evening.
• Placing and monitoring personnel. Especially in large operations, the placement of limited personnel is critical to gaining control. With the enhanced visibility that thermal imaging provides, wildland firefighters can be placed where control lines must be built. Proper placement enhances the ability of firefighters to protect exposures, including structures, threatened habitats and critical infrastructure. As ground crews deploy, airborne supervisors can monitor their locations and ensure a coordinated and effective response.