Rocky Mountain News
By RACHEL BRAND
DENVER (AP) - Five days after the Mason Gulch Fire erupted near
the town of Beulah, Jill Johnson boarded her specially rigged
helicopter and headed toward the charred land along the fire's
edge.
Just 250 feet above the ground, the copter sailed above
blackened and still-alive trees, burned-over rocks and smoldering
grass in the mountain area 150 miles south of Denver.
Johnson sat behind her laptop, observed the territory through a
radiometric thermal-imaging camera and mapped the land in red,
green, yellow and purple.
Four hours later, her company, RAM Systems LLC, would provide
fire command with a nuanced guide to underground hot spots, smolder
and smoke, cool areas and those ablaze. It was a road map for what
needed to be cleaned up.
Normally, crews would walk a 300-foot swath along the fire's
perimeter and feel each rock, shrub and tree for heat - potential
sources of another fire.
This time, fire officials used Johnson's radiometric airborne
mapping data to direct mop-up crews to hot spots along the fire's
21-mile edge. That released the rest of the 800 firefighters to
rehabilitate and reseed the forest.
"You're talking about land you can't really map or walk
around," said Justin Dombrowski, spokesman for the Mason Gulch
Fire, which began July 6. "The imagery helps us detect where the
real heat is hiding."
Jim Wallace, operations section chief for the fire, estimates
the $5,000 a day spent on maps saved $500,000 to $600,000 in labor
costs.
Technology such as radiometric thermal imaging is now part of
the firefighters' arsenal. Not much can replace old-fashioned
shovels, water and retardant for ground fire combat, but technology
allows crews to better plan and communicate.
"The biggest help is information. Information is power," said
Dombrowski. Especially if, as on large wildland fires, crews drive
in from across the state or out of state and don't know the
terrain.
Some of the new tools were used before a shovel of dirt was
turned.
The basics of wildland firefighting are this: Start at the heel
of the fire, scrape a firebreak around the fire's perimeter and
finally pinch off the fire's head.
Before crews dug in at the fire, the fire managers set up
portable repeater stations atop mountain peaks. Those stations
helped firefighters to communicate by radio when they're thick in
the action - a key for safety.
Then firefighters used information gleaned from an airborne
infrared camera to create a plan of attack.
Such cameras take large pictures of land tracts to document
buildings, access roads or specific stands of trees. In some cases,
airborne cameras have detected endangered species or precious
stands of mesquite to be saved.
Some workers employed personal digital assistants to access
reference guides on scene.
Boulder, Colo.-based Pocket Mobility has developed software that
stores safety guidelines, map scale conversions and fire behavior
patterns in the hand-held devices.
In the past, operations managers had to page through stacks of
books, reference papers and laptop computers to find the same data.
Using Pocket Mobility, field crews on the scene could input the
temperature, slope, weather, time and surrounding fuels. The PDA
predicted how fast and high the flames would move.
"It's kind of like magic when you punch that in, and it comes
up with numbers," said John Covele, president of Pocket Mobility
and a firefighter himself.
His company has 5,000 customers, and his software is used, he
estimates, on every major wildland fire.
Dombrowski, who works alongside Covele in the Boulder Rural Fire
Department, says he appreciates how technology speeds decisions.
But what happens if a phone, radio or PDA fails?
"The one problem is, you get new generations of people coming
in, and they may never know how to do it by hand, and they only
know how to do it by computer," he said. "If we get completely
reliant on technology, we may be setting ourselves up for some
problems."
Boulder Rural is among the Colorado departments that employs
another uncommon, low-tech method to protect structures:
triple-strength dishwashing soap mixed with water, or compressed
air foam.
CAFS, as it is known, has been around since World War II. The
British used it to protect floating wood bridges.
Despite its history, the technology has been slow to gain
acceptance. Just 8 percent of new fire trucks come with CAFS
equipment, and just 5 percent of city fire departments use it.
"There are times when the fire services says, 'tradition,
tradition, we've always done it this way,"' said Boulder Rural
Fire Marshall Jeff Webb.
The foam can resemble marshmallows or shaving cream.
It works because detergent and air reduce water's surface
tension so it more efficiently attacks fires. While about 80
percent of plain water runs off, 80 percent of foam sticks to its
target.
What's more, the air that's injected into the water allows it to
spray 100 to 120 feet away - farther than undoctored water. Foam's
milky color deflects heat and cools the fire.
"The rule of thumb is, it is four to five times more effective
than water," said Geary Roberts, president of Pneumax Inc., the
market leader in compressed air equipment. "And we use one tenth
of the water."
CAFS wasn't used in the Mason Gulch Fire, but was employed two
years ago to protect dozens of homes in Los Angeles that were
threatened by Southern California wildfires.
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On the Net:
RAM Systems LLC: http://www.ramsystemsllc.com
Pocket Mobility Inc.: http://www.pocketmobility.com

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)