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Forest Service Gets New Wildfire Tool in Time for Season

With much of the West mired in drought conditions heading into the summer, the U.S. Forest Service is preparing for what could be another damaging wildfire season. This year, firefighters will be armed with an updated tool to help them battle fires with the precision of special forces on the battlefield. The instrument, known as the “Autonomous Modular Sensor,” or AMS, can help the Forest Service detect wildfires and conduct post-burn assessments.

A post-burn mosaic, generated by the AMS instrument, of the 525 square mile fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters and destroyed hundreds of structures near Pasadena, California in 2009.
Credit: NASA.

While similar devices have been in use for several years, scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., working with the Forest Service, recently deployed a new version with expanded capabilities that will allow firefighters on the ground to request overflights during the day, when wildfires tend to be most active. Previously, such flights were conducted at night due to the limitations of the older generation instrument.

“Being able to fly during the day would give us an additional capability that we don’t currently have,” said Everett Hinkley, the director of remote sensing for the Forest Service.

The new sensor transmits data in near real-time to crews on the ground to analyze and improve decision making. The new instrument operates like a spinning mirror, and it paints a stripe on the ground perpendicular to the motion of flight, scanning that land for signs of heat and other characteristics that mark wildfire activity, Hinkley said. It provides a higher resolution overview of a wildfire compared to satellites, which can also detect burn areas, but don’t have a high enough resolution to allow the images to be used for tactical firefighting decisions, such as where to place “hotshot” crews, and where to conduct airborne water drops.

The Forest Service has installed the new instrument on a Cessna Citation Jet, and may add it to a King Air turboprop aircraft. It will be capable of scanning 100,000 acres per hour, for a total of about 1,000 square miles, during a typical 6-hour flight, Hinkley said.

Fire detection image from the AMS instrument. The red spots mark areas where the fire is burning. 
Credit: NASA/USDA.

Most wildfires are far smaller than 100,000 acres, but data show that large blazes are becoming more common as average temperatures increase in the West, due in part to global warming, and spring snowmelt occurs earlier in the year. In addition, land use changes have helped contribute to more wildfires as communities expand into previously unoccupied land.

Compared to the average year in the 1970s, during the past decade there were seven times more fires greater than 10,000 acres each year, and nearly five times more fires larger than 25,000 acres each year, according to Climate Central research.

On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago. In the past decade, the average annual burn area on Forest Service land in the West has exceeded 2 million acres — more than all of Yellowstone National Park.

In addition to serving in a fire-detection role, the AMS instrument can also conduct forest health analyses, post-fire burn conditions, and be used to generate burn severity maps, Hinkley said.

Hinkley said the instrument gives incident commanders on the ground key intelligence for battling blazes. He called the AMS instrument one of the “biggest vacuum cleaners” of data for fire mapping, since it can scan such a large area in a short period of time.

The Forest Service owns 22 aircraft, and during wildfire season it can contract up to 800 planes for firefighting. Hinkley said the new instrument was designed to run autonomously, which makes it ideally suited for possible future use with unmanned aircraft (UAVs), such as Predator drones, that the Forest Service is considering acquiring for a fire detection role in the future.

“We’re very anxious to start using unmanned aerial vehicles over fires,” Hinkley said, noting that the agency has been evaluating the potential uses of UAVs for the past decade. The agency does not plan to use UAVs during the 2013 wildfire season, however. In fact, budget cuts have threatened the agency’s ability to deploy sufficient assets to combat this season’s wildfires, and the agency has requested $74 million during Fiscal Year 2013 and 2014 to modernize its airtanker fleet.