Eye in the sky: heat-seeking, fire-spotting technology

Special to The Sentinel—Two Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 planes like this one are on order for Colorado. The aircraft has been used by the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command for surveillance and reconnaissance.

A fire racing through rural north-central Washington this summer destroyed about 100 homes, leaving behind smoldering rubble, solitary brick chimneys and burned-out automobiles as it blackened hundreds of square miles. Officials hope to keep fires in Colorado from becoming that destructive with military-grade, heat-seeking technology that will spot wildfires before they spread.

COLORADO DIVISION OF FIRE PREVENTION AND CONTROL/Special to The Daily Sentinel—The 2014 Wildfire Outlook, signed by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on May 12 earlier this year, included an expansion of the fleet used to fight wildifres in the state. State Sen. Gail Schwartz and Paul Cooke, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, are among those looking on.

The way Colorado deals with wildfires is about to go high-tech.

The same company that creates computerized sensing equipment for the U.S. military to locate enemy combatants on the ground won the contract to equip two new multi-mission planes that Colorado is buying to help the state do the same thing with wildfires.

All of that is part of a greater plan to be smarter about dealing with forest fires — which is to focus more on prevention and early detection, so fewer large ones threaten populated areas, said Paul Cooke, director of the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

“This is what we consider to be the game-changer,” Cooke said. “This is going to give the local incident commanders the information they need to make sound decisions about their fires. They can have constant information.”

The entire effort stems from a bill approved by the Colorado Legislature earlier this year to create an aerial firefighting fleet, something that state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, spent two years pushing.

Although King’s idea of a fleet won’t lead to a firefighting corps like the one in California, it will fundamentally change the way Colorado deals with fires, Cooke said.

To start, that new law authorized Cooke’s agency to purchase two spotter planes, and to contract with a private company to equip the aircraft with the needed computerized gear to locate fires, and to supply the pilots to fly them and the maintenance workers to keep them in the air.

War-zone technology

Though it isn’t a done deal yet because contracts are still being worked out with the company, Cooke told The Daily Sentinel that the contract will go to the Nevada-based company Sierra Nevada Corp., which has offices in 17 states, including Colorado.

That is the same company that is building the Dream Chaser, a reusable orbital and suborbital space plane that company officials are hoping NASA chooses as a replacement for the retired space shuttle.

The company, which has offices in Louisville just north of Denver, has numerous contracts with the Department of Defense, one of which is for an integrated mission system.

That system not only is being used to track enemy combatants in war zones and report their exact position to soldiers on the ground, but it also helps U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pilots patrol the nation’s southern border.

For Colorado, the company is adapting that same sensor and infrared technology to do something slightly different: locate wildfires, track their size and direction, and report those findings via iPad and tablet technology to fire crews on site.

And all of that is done in real time.

“The neat thing is, Sierra Nevada already does this for the military and other agencies,” Cooke said. “This is the same type of hardware and sensors that you’ll see on Department of Defense aircraft in Afghanistan. But instead of looking for bad guys, we’ll be looking for fires.”

Training begins

Cooke said the company won the state contract primarily because of that sensor and infrared technology expertise, but also because of the plane it proposed that the state use, the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop aircraft. Since 2005, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command has used that plane, which it dubbed the U-28, for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Cooke said the plane not only has a stellar safety record but is cheaper to maintain and fly. He said it is versatile enough to get anywhere in Colorado in 30 minutes from its planned home base of Centennial Airport in Englewood, and can land at any airport, no matter how small.

“They’re already training the pilots and the sensor operators, who actually are our folks, trained firefighters,” Cooke said. “We’re within a couple of weeks of actually having an aircraft flying, but it won’t be until October before we’ll have both planes available.”

All that is just a small piece of Cooke’s long-term plan.

Before those spotter planes even leave the ground, firefighters in the division will watch the state’s weather and other data to determine possible hot spots with help from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which monitors fire conditions in five area states, including Colorado.

Small fires

One of the things they’ll be looking for are areas where lightning is striking, the most common cause for forest fires. They’ll couple that information with other risk factors that spark major wildfires, such as high fuel load, high winds and how dry the weather has been in specific areas of the state.

The division already has prioritized what areas of the state to target first, including the more-populated areas in the so-called urban-wildland interface, where the state has seen some deadly fires in recent years, Cooke said.

“Once we’ve identified a fire much earlier, we can launch an aircraft earlier and make a difference,” he said. “Instead of looking for smoke, these planes can identify the heat signature of a very small fire.”

The High Park Fire that burned more than 87,000 acres and torched 259 homes near Fort Collins in 2012 was caused by a lightning strike that traditional air spotters couldn’t locate until it grew too large, according to a March report to the Legislature calling for the new planes.

In addition to the new multi-mission planes and all the other high-tech gadgetry the division is to use, the Legislature also authorized Cooke’s division to contract for more aerial tools, up to four firefighting helicopters, four single-engine air tankers and two larger slurry-dropping tankers.

Up front costs: $33.6 million.

Leasing such aircraft from private vendors is not new, Cooke points out. What is new is the increase in the number of aircraft that will be available each fire season.

‘Sound’ plan

Cooke’s new boss, former Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey, said he’s completely supportive of what the division is doing and plans no changes to it.

“I think the plan developed by the Division of Fire Prevention and Control and presented to the Legislature is a commonsense approach,” said Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which oversees Cooke’s division. “It recognizes that effective wildfire fighting requires a number of disciplines. I think the plan is sound.”

The federal government is in the process of replacing its aging fleet. Though Cooke said it will take them years to get there, he’s grateful for one thing that has made his job easier this year: A relatively calm fire season thanks to high snowpack and spring rains.

In recent years, the state has spent as much as $45 million a year battling blazes, and Cooke is hopeful he can save the state money in the long run by instituting a better early warning system.

But Cooke’s long-term dilemma is this: If this new effort works as well as he hopes, how will he be able to persuade the Legislature to continue funding it?

“We’re really just going to have to keep track of the data to show that we’ve identified this fire at one acre and it was kept to five acres or whatever,” he said. “But I’d much rather have that dilemma to prove the effectiveness than to continue to have large fires that could have been kept small.”


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