Where firefighting ideas take flight
Aerial research center busy putting technologies to the test
RIFLE — On a warm, sunny, late June morning when firefighters were out battling blazes in Colorado and the West in the heat of the day, one firefighting-minded group instead was gathered around a table at the Rifle Garfield County Airport, thinking about how to take on wildfires in the skies in the dark of night.
Elan Frank, a representative of Israel-based Elbit Systems, was meeting with representatives of Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, promoting the company’s system for dropping clusters of liquid-filled pellets on fires. The purported benefit is more accurate targeting of aerial drops of retardant and other fire suppressants due to reduced dispersal and wind drift, meaning the ability to make drops from higher altitudes — which is safer at night.
“I know you’re looking for solutions at night,” Frank told his listeners.
Indeed, the center is doing just that, and the conversation eventually turned to how a demonstration of the product might be arranged in Colorado.
Evaluation of the potential for night aerial firefighting operations was specifically identified as an intended area of study in the 2014 state legislation creating the center. It’s one of nine research projects now going on at the center, which employs eight people and began operating in Rifle following a 2015 decision by state officials to locate it there.
“There’s no other organization out there that’s just focused on aerial firefighting capabilities,” center Director Melissa Lineberger says.
As a result, it has an opportunity to have national and even international impact with its research, she said.
The whole focus of that research is benefiting operations personnel on fires.
“We’re different because we’re not just putting together research reports, we’re actually getting the technology in the hands of the firefighting community,” she said.
BILL PUSHED BY STEVE KING
The center’s creation was part of a bill carried by then state Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. The bill’s main focus was requiring the state to acquire or contract for its own firefighting aircraft, while the center — with its eight-word title — was a secondary focus.
“We didn’t name it that. I always tell people that. It is a long name,” Lineberger said almost apologetically, noting that the name is spelled out in the bill.
She said the idea for the center came from people having observed that a reduction in the size of the federal aerial firefighting program was occurring in part because of a lack of research and development informing what aircraft the government bought and how to convert the planes for use, and a failure to work with stakeholders regarding what their aerial firefighting needs were.
The center was created as a quasi-independent research center designed to assure that the state aerial firefighting program is as efficient and effective as possible, Lineberger said.
Seven jurisdictions formally vied to be the center’s home, including Montrose County. Rifle won out for reasons including the level of local support; the fact that the airport already was home to an Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit facility that includes federal, state and local agencies; proximity to the Colorado Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Eagle County; and accessibility to open lands, uncontrolled airspace with a variety of terrain, and high-risk wildfire areas. Past fires have included the fire that killed 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, 23 years ago this month.
This year, the Legislature tasked the center with studying the use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, in public safety applications such as firefighting, search and rescue, accident reconstruction and crime scene documentation. That legislation didn’t include funding, and so the work is contingent on obtaining resources such as donations from drone vendors who’d like to get their products in the hands of public safety agencies and have it subjected to unbiased testing.
Even before the bill’s passage, the center had begun evaluating the ability of drones to perform functions such as scouting fire activity through visual and thermal imagery; ascertaining the pros and cons of various drones and drone sensors when it comes to cost, performance, and packability by ground firefighters; and using demonstrations and other means to share its findings with public safety agencies. As one local example, its work helped convince the Hotchkiss Fire Department to buy a drone.
RUNNING WITH IDEAS
The center is part of the state Division of Fire Prevention & Control. Lineberger’s background is as a licensed attorney in Colorado. She worked for the division as a policy analyst before being put in charge of getting the Center for Excellence established as its interim director, and then became its director.
She hired the center’s staff, several of whom have firefighting backgrounds.
“My job is all about providing support to these folks so that they can run with ideas,” she said.
She said the Forest Service also is conducting a study on aerial firefighting use and effectiveness, and the center has been coordinating with that agency and sharing information with it.
Australian fire managers have come to Colorado to visit with center personnel, and France is looking at starting up a center similar to Colorado’s and wants to partner with the state because of the work the center already has done, she said. The center has been invited to speak at a conference in France in October on the issue of night aerial firefighting operations.
“That’s been a really tricky project for us because people have such strong opinions on night operations,” Lineberger said.
RISKS VERSUS REWARDS
A couple of high-profile crashes decades ago involving helicopters doing nighttime firefighting contributed to concerns about the dangers of such operations. These days nighttime operations are fairly limited, although the arrival of new technologies and products, from drones to the pellets being touted by the Israeli company, may offer means for safer aerial firefighting after dark.
Lineberger said some aerial night firefighting is occurring in California in areas where fires can threaten high-population areas.
“To them it’s no question worth it to put that fire out at night and take on the extra cost and risk of doing that,” she said.
She thinks a cultural shift may be occurring, with support rising for nighttime operations. She was surprised when she asked state fire chiefs at a recent meeting and none had strong opinions against such operations, with several voicing support for them.
To Lineberger, the issue comes down to risk management, cost-benefit analysis and the degree to which the firefighting community is open to new approaches.
“We fight fire the same way our parents and grandparents fought fire. We send guys out there with a Pulaski (firefighting tool) and tell them to dig lines,” she said.
She said one problem is a lack of cost-benefit data on nighttime aerial operations. The center is looking at questions such as how many fires that start at night expand to threaten residential areas the following day.
She said that for last year’s Beaver Creek Fire in Jackson County, there wasn’t critical infrastructure at risk and the forest needed revitalization through fire, so night aerial operations didn’t make sense. But the next time a fire strikes with the potential to become like the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires that destroyed hundreds of homes on the Front Range in recent years, a cost-benefit analysis for such operations becomes warranted, she said.
THE 30,000-FOOT VIEW
Particularly at a time of year when the firefighting community is scurrying from incident to incident, the center’s personnel have the luxury of being able to engage in bigger-picture thinking about effective aerial firefighting methods. Lineberger said she thinks there was some initial skepticism among some people about a facility focused on research and development rather than operational work.
“What we’ve been able to show is the benefit of having folks who can take a 30,000-foot view and really take themselves out of the operations world to look at these new technologies and start to develop them for the operational folks, and so I think it’s a huge benefit and very affordable. We’re paying for the brains basically, and being able to take that 30,000-foot view, it is key for us to be successful in that work.”