NASA technology to help in upcoming fire season

April 18, 2013 7:10:29 PM PDT
With fire season set to begin, the U.S. Forest Service is arming itself with a high tech tool born in a NASA laboratory. ABC7 News climbed on board a one-of-a-kind airplane that's helping to save homes and lives.

The U.S. Forest Service has a lot of airplanes, but only one jet. And the view from that jet is something spectacular. You won't see these multicolored mountains out the window of the airplane. You'll see them through a NASA-designed infrared sensor on the bottom, when it's looking at this.

"We fly over the larger fires and give a perimeter map, so they have eyes on it in the morning so they can plan for the day," said Dan Johnson.

Johnson is one of the pilots who fly in the dead of night, taking thermal images of the biggest wildfires in the west.

"It's dynamic. We don't know where we're going to be every night because of the nature of the fires. Typically we fly maybe four states in one night," said Johnson.

Not long ago, the best map they could hope for was an accurate perimeter, a line around the fire. But now, NASA's technology gives them a detailed heat map.

"You're able to make much improved predictions of where that fire might go or where it might stall out," said Vince Ambrosia, a Cal State scientist at NASA Ames.

Before the NASA partnership, the U.S. Forest Service was still gathering fire imagery, but they had trouble getting it to the firefighters. Instead of the high tech wireless system they have now. They were putting the maps on thumb drives and dropping them out of the airplane.

"As you can see right here, we used to actually drop the imagery on either a thumb drive or we'd print it off in the airplane and put it in a tube and then drop it down to the runway," said a pilot.

But now, that little hole in the plane has been replaced by antennas. So instead of waiting hours, firefighters know where to go in minutes.

"If some of their forces are out in harm's way, it allows them to get a communication out to them to move or to deploy to a different area," said Everett Hinkley, U.S. Forest Service.

The forest service says there's only one problem with the technology. There's not enough of it. But NASA has an answer for that too. This sensor is the first that can scan fires during the daytime as well as at night, so it can work around the clock.


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