Wildfires are a major concern in western Colorado, but infrared and geospatial technology are helping the state better prepare on the ground with a sharper eye in the sky.
Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft Program uses infrared technology, two color cameras and a geospatial database for high-performance aircraft to control wildfires across the state.
“The camera is a military-grade camera like they use for a lot of defense-type missions,” said Bruce Dikken, northwest deputy chief of the Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control. “It’s very accurate, it tells you exactly where you’re looking.”
The program was the first of its kind in the country.
“It’s hard to know exactly where a fire is if it’s burning a specific canyon, mountain or hill without being able to actually see it,” he said. “You can see it from an airplane or a helicopter, but one of the things that infrared does is that infrared sees through smoke.”
Colorado has two such aircraft stationed in Centennial, and they are able to reach most of the state in less than an hour, if the weather affects takeoff. Both aircraft are Pilatus PC-12s, which are turbo-prop aircraft that can safely cruise at altitudes above 20,000 feet.
“So far this year we have detected 81 new fires; 75 of those were within the state of Colorado,” Dikken said.
The aircraft are equipped with infrared and color sensors controlled by two sensor operators from the Wildland Fire Management Staff’s Fire Prevention and Control Division, and flown by a pilot.
The aircraft is integrated with a geospatial database that displays images and incident details to local fire managers through an online application called the Colorado Fire Information System, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
“They use that computer system, not only to manipulate the cameras, but also to do the mapping, create reports and email things and all that stuff,” Dikken said.
Primarily, the aircraft are used to scout fires, but they also provide real-time information to ground forces — a tactic used during the Grizzly Creek fire.
“Every day while it was happening, we were flying over the fire,” he said. “With the camera, we would be able to track the outer perimeter of the fire, put it on a map and send it to people on the ground so they know exactly where the fire is and where they need to put their efforts.”
Operators working in the back of the plane also have the ability to map near where the lightning struck and check the area for smoldering fires.
“On board, they can pull up the lightning map and actually track where the lightning struck and go look at those areas specifically,” said Ryan McCulley, NW District Deputy Chief of the Division of Fire Control and Prevention. “If a certain area has gotten a lot of lightning, they can really go and search that area and see if they can find any new fires.”
The fire in the infrared camera causes the fire to come out, McCulley said. In the past, the state would have to wait to spot smoke from aircraft, which could be unpredictable for firefighting in isolated areas.
“People see smoke and they call 911, that’s one way it still happens,” he said, “but historically, it would just be to get somebody up in an airplane and look for smoke.”
It’s an asset to the state of Colorado with broad applications, Dikken said. Although it was purchased specifically for wildland fire, it has many capabilities, be it search and rescue, flood management or even assessing a landslide.
“I think about Glenwood Canyon and some of the landslides,” he said. “It would have been a great tool because it would have let people know what the damage probably was long before they were able to get in there and assess it. So it’s a tool, it’s available for all those things.”