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Both ground and air crews can effectively deploy thermal imagers. Equipping ground crews with thermal imagers can give them the ability to monitor fire conditions in their immediate area providing more localized advanced warning than might otherwise be possible. A thermal imager can often give an impression of how much relative heat is being carried in the smoke. While not definitive, it is one more tool in the toolbox.
• Monitoring dangers and extinguishing hot spots on the ground. With proper training on image interpretation, firefighters can use thermal imagers to monitor fire movement on the ground and in the trees above them. The direction and volume of fire bands can be tracked and monitored with a thermal imager. With practice, firefighters can identify snags, thereby improving safety on the job. During mop-up, crews with thermal imagers can scan burned areas to ensure that the fire is out and better prevent the opportunity for flare-up or rekindle.
• Managing prescribed burns. Controlled burns are critical toward reducing the fuel load to improve manageability of wildland fires when they inevitably occur. Using the image on a thermal imager, wildland firefighters involved in prescribed burning can monitor the direction of fire spread and manage mop-up more effectively. This provides information that enables them to protect exposures and keep these burns in a controlled state.
• Navigation. When firefighters travel by ground during active wildland fires, their vision may be obscured by smoke. Thermal imagers used from a vehicle can assist the driver in navigating safely through thick smoke, avoiding fixed hazards as well as firefighters on foot. Firefighters on foot can use a thermal imager to help identify safer travel routes based on terrain or fire movement. This can help crews move safely and effectively when smoke obscures their vision. Thermal imagers also provide an effective means of night vision. Since a thermal imager does not register light, its picture is fairly consistent, regardless of daylight conditions. This can extend firefighting operations and enhance crew safety by providing clear views of surrounding terrain and potential escape routes. Sometimes, a thermal imager can give you information that will help you to make the “best bad decision” you can make. If you are in the position of having to deploy fire shelters for protection, there are likely no “good decisions” left. In this case, a thermal imager may be helpful in picking the best spot based on a quick scan of the area. Even though the best spot may be chosen, this by no means guarantees safety.
Thermal imagers can be used to improve a variety of wildland firefighting operations from the air and on the ground. By first understanding how a thermal imager can be employed during a wildfire response and then practicing with it, firefighters can improve their safety and effectiveness. Remember, the 10 “Standard Firefighting Orders” and “18 Watchout Situations” (http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/safety/10_18/10_18.html) are the bible of wildland firefighting and thermal imagers should only be used to enhance the decision-making process.
My sincerest condolences to everyone impacted by this tragic loss. Nineteen is a difficult number to wrap your mind around. In an effort to give myself some perspective, I created a list of 19 close friends and then tried to imagine them all gone. The pain is unimaginable. n