May 23, 2003 

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Fire Hunter
May 02, 2003

image: ABC News
Fire season is underway, and some 16,000 fires have already burned more than 300,000 acres in the United States. (Click here for the most recent fire stats.) But soon the Forest Service will have a new tool to identify and locate wildfires, and then help firefighters decide the best way to put them out.

Don McKeown and Michael Richardson, imaging scientists at the Rochester Institute of Technology, got funding from NASA to create a state-of-the-art system to detect and monitor forest fires from above. Called the Wildfire Airborne Sensor Program, or WASP, the system can see in many different wavelengths to spot both the light and heat from fires.

"Right now, the Forest Service can only do their mapping at night," says McKeown, "because the sensors that they have today cannot tell the difference between the hot spots caused by the sun reflecting off a piece of metal or body of water or something like that. They can’t distinguish that from an actual fire."

In the WASP system, a high-resolution digital camera will map an area in the visible spectrum, and three infrared cameras will “see” heat in short, mid, and long-wave bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. All of the WASP cameras will fly on an aircraft and take a series of pictures. Special software will combine the images to create a comprehensive map. “This [technology] will allow us to detect fires reliably during the day, even in the presence of sunlight," McKeown says.

The W.A.S.P. camera system.
The WASP technology will be capable of detecting even very small fires from as high as 10,000 feet. “We want to be able to detect a fire from 8-12 inches in diameter that is relatively cool at 600 degrees Fahrenheit, which for a fire is equivalent to a smoldering stump, or an incipient fire,” explains McKeown. “And that’s the kind of thing that the Forest Service is interested in locating, because those small, cool fires can turn into large hot ones very easily.”

Chris Long, who was with the Arrowhead Hotshots firefighting crew, told PBS’S NOVA how a small flicker can quickly turn big and dangerous : “In the morning, you’ve got a little bit of smoke, a little bit of needle litter that’s just kind of skunking around, just giving off a little wisp of smoke. And an hour later, get some sun on it and it starts moving. Couple of hours later you’ve got a tree torching. Ten minutes after that you’ve got a canopy fire.”

Furthermore, once the WASP system has detected a fire, it can feed real-time information to the firefighters below. “We will be able to make an estimate of the size and intensity of the fire,” says McKeown. “We’ll be able to provide an ‘information product’ to the fire managers that [includes] not only the latitude and longitude of the fire, but this is where the fire is relative to terrain features, to a road that you may want to use as an ingress to get at the fire, or if there’s any areas of concern that may be near the fire that you want to protect.”

image: ABC News
McKeown expects the system to be ready by the 2004 fire season. But even then, fighting fires will still come down to a struggle between man and nature. “The most important fire tool is the one that we’ve had from day one: a crew member out there right up against the fire, sucking up dust and sawing down trees and constructing fireline,” Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, told PBS’s NOVA. “It’s just like the guys on the front line in a war. You know you can have all the incredible technology, aerial support, communications, space surveillance, but in the final analysis, a war is won by the ground-pounding grunt. And that’s, I don’t think, ever going to change.”



by Karen Lurie


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