High-tech fire watch
The Buckskin fire looks a little different on Matthew Krunglevich's computer screen, an adornment of yellow dots smeared across part of a southwestern Oregon map, with dashes of orange along the blaze's eastern and southern edges.
At a glance, this view from NASA's MODIS — Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer — satellite doesn't look like much. But it actually tells Krunglevich, of the Oregon Department of Department of Forestry, a lot. The splashes of color southwest of Cave Junction show where the fire is burning and where it's burning hottest: yellow equals warm, orange equals warmer. Predictably, the orange is shown where the fire is burning outward, where the flames are newer.
"It gives us an idea of — but a really rough approach — to how big a fire is, where there's heat activity on a fire on a broad scale," Krunglevich says.
It's one tool in a growing high-tech toolbox that can help crews prioritize resources as needed. Because in an area such as southwestern Oregon that's so consistently primed for summer wildfires, the more information, the better, fire officials say.
“Not just going in blindly. We want more information to be more impactful, so we can make sure we're optimizing all of our resources," Krunglevich says.
MODIS is just one of many cutting-edge instruments wildland firefighters can use in their attack plan.
ODF foresters can track lightning-sparked fires from the moment lightning strikes by using tracking software from the Bureau of Land Management.
ODF wildland fire supervisor Matt Fumasi points to a map with dozens of jagged lightning-bolt icons tattooing the terrain, showing strikes from a recent storm. One of the clusters is about 10 miles southwest of Cave Junction, where the Buckskin fire is burning on federal forestland.
Not every lightning strike will start a fire, but the program shows firefighters which areas need to be watched. The agency can send a spotter plane overhead to look for smoke plumes. Standard policy is to do that for three days straight following a storm.
ODF also can get specific latitude and longitude for individual strikes, and it sometimes dispatches engines to check them out.
"It's pretty handy," says ODF spokesman Brian Ballou.
The hills have eyes
Area mountaintops give crews good vantage points on smoke plumes, so in addition to traditional fire lookouts manned by people, cameras have been installed on some local peaks. Fumasi says six cameras have been stationed on six area summits. The fire lookout at Sexton Summit has both a camera and a lookout.
The cameras pivot 360 degrees and stop at preset intervals where they take several pictures about one second apart and play them back on a loop. Firefighters can see the images from the comfort of a chair, watching a monitor bank at ODF's southwest Oregon headquarters in Central Point.
"Basically it does that all day long," Fumasi says.
If there are any inconsistencies in the photos — a smoke plume or even a shadow cast by a cloud — the camera gives off an alert.
"It's just layers built in to tell the computer what the picture should look like most of the time. If it sees something out of the ordinary, it throws up an alert."
Foresters can then take control of the camera and make the shot live, allowing them to zoom, pan and tilt the lens.
On the ground
Down below, firefighters can utilize handheld infrared sensors to hone in on heat signatures the naked eye can't track. This is especially useful during the evening and night hours, Ballou says.
"Usually in the lower-temperature times of day, their usability ... goes up," he says. "Their reliability goes up if the ground is cooler."
He says the devices look like miniature megaphones, complete with a small screen that can display heat signatures, and a trigger to start the scanning process.
All of these high-tech tools have demonstrated their worth, Ballou says, adding firefighters can be skeptical about new technology until it works, and works better.
"If it proves to be a useful tool, then we'll embrace it entirely," he says.