Top 5 Innovations in Wildland Firefighting

Erickson Inc., along with industry experts, collaboratively discuss ideas for using technology in aerial firefighting

Fire seasons in the western United States and around the globe are now more intense than ever before. This realization makes better technologies that shorten the severity of fire seasons necessary. Worldwide, fire agencies are working to combine technology such as surveillance and data crunching from diverse sources to understand where and when a fire might occur.

Knowledge and collaboration are powerful when it comes to understanding fire and saving lives and property.

R&D Senior Director for Erickson Inc., Jeffrey Baxter, recently said that wildfires are becoming more extensive and more severe, driving costs to fight fires. In a 2021 conference on Disaster Management, hosted by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA), Baxter said, “Cost-wise, it is becoming exponentially more expensive to fight fires.” Baxter added that 20 years ago, it cost $50 million a year to fight wildland fires, and in 2020 that cost had escalated to $50 billion (about $150 per person in the US).

Can new innovations decrease the length and severity of fire seasons?

In the conference, both Baxter and Erickson’s Erick Nodland, Vice President of Aviation Center of Excellence, led a panel discussion about innovative technologies in the industry. Sharing about modern technologies were Industry experts from the U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The big picture takeaway is that there are many technologies available. Still, to improve, work in data-crunching and implementing technology across disciplines must occur. Baxter said, “I have yet to see a cohesive outcome from detection to response. I have yet to see a competent setup of tools all along that path.”

For Erickson, Baxter said the focus is to “put water on the fire,” for others, he cited, their focus is detection or response. Baxter asks how we can merge these things to get the needed information?

Here are the top 5 recent fire prevention technologies*

Terrestrial | Land Surveillance

Both NOAA and the U.S. Forest Service agree that early fire detection is key to decreasing wildfire severity. The U.S. Forest Service offers land and space surveillance. They watch changes in forests, including on trees and environmental changes. They focus on climate change due to human activity, and they offer data tools for research on their website: Tools & Products | US Forest Service (usda.gov)

Space | Satellite Surveillance

NOAA runs the Satellite and Information Service, which supplies software called FIMMA for, “Advanced Very High-Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) data from the NOAA polar-orbiting satellites.” High-resolution images are used to detect fires from space. Mitch Goldberg of NOAA said that they could capture satellite images from space every 30 seconds or so. They can also merge that data into weather forecasts and other communications that are tied directly to firefighting. Baxter said that if Erickson pilots could have a space-based aerial asset, down to tens of feet, instead of hundreds of feet, which would help with the flight path. Goldberg said the data coming from their surveillance goes to weather forecasting entities. Still, there could be options to send to pilots and organizations that need the data.

Data-crunching Software

A variety of fire data software is actively culling information for public and private groups around fire risk. Think of Google Maps or a high-end industry software with a specific function for firefighting agencies. Intterra is one type of software for fire agencies that helps to provide “Real-time situational awareness for firefighters,” according to their website. Another initiative, Fire Data Lab, takes data from fire agencies and creates data sets that allow organizations to make better firefighting decisions, such as asset budgeting or location deployment.

Image sourced from www.intterragroup.com

Mapping of obstacles, things on land

Baxter cited many reasons for the absence of nighttime firefighting or even drone firefighting. For example, a lack of clear maps of all obstacles from powerlines to structures and more. He said, “during daylight hours, you can see these items when flying over them.” But at night, he said, even with night vision goggles, it can be unsafe for the pilot and crew to be out fighting fires.

Firefighting can be around the clock.

Nighttime firefighting can shorten the length of a fire. Sikorsky has created MATRIX™ technology that allows for nighttime firefighting and better night vision.

Erickson will implement the modern technology on the latest evolutions of the Erickson S-64 Air Crane® helicopters (S-64 F+ model) soon. Nodland added, “The human brain is fraught with failures and misperceptions; if you send out an unmanned aerial vehicle, you don’t have the situational awareness that you would having been there. But with the right technology, you can have better surveillance, like artificial intelligence, scanning during the day to obtain information about the geography; the aircraft needs to understand the terrain, the wires, the trees.”

Nighttime firefighting

One of the obstacles in gaining control over a fire is stopping fighting the fire at night. The Forest Service offers nighttime firefighting with night vision goggles. Erickson also offers the night vision goggles as an option and is developing new ways to supply safer development of nighttime firefighting in partnership with Sikorsky and MATRIX™ technology. Read our press release on the announcement from the 2020 Heli-Expo tradeshow here.

In summary

There are innovative technologies in the form of tools employed to fight wildfires. Baxter said that there is not “a cohesive package that has the detection and collection of information for a smooth communication path.”

Bob Baird of the U.S. Forest Service said, “There’s no one tool that fits all.” He added that satellites supply detection; the Forest Service uses aircraft to detect and track fast-moving fires; and the Forest Service employs night flying on an RC-26 Metroliner. He said they also use a geospatial portal to see across diverse sources and night water-dropping helicopters. Overall, though, with the Forest Service, Baird said there are many sources used together to create ports of information. The Forest Service uses a system called Enterprise Geospatial Portal with multiple views. They can turn off pixelated imagery or use overlay tools to view fire variables. All resources come together to answer, “Where is the fire? What is the threat? Where are my people?” He said the technology across disciplines answers these questions. For him, that is the focus.

For more information about modern technology insights discussed in firefighting, view the panel discussion during the Disaster Management Conference.

*As discussed by the panel during this conference.