|UM's Hot New
Technologies Help Firefighters
by Cary Shimek
When the Northern Rockies blazed last summer during the worst fire season in 90 years,
University of Montana researchers helped fire managers make better decisions through the
use of new imaging and reconnaissance techniques.
LLoyd Queen, a UM forestry associate professor and remote-sensing scientist, used
technology developed for NASA satellites to help planners peer under the smoke to map
fires, monitor fire behavior and predict what the blazes would do next.
I heard comments like, No one at any fire anywhere has ever had data like
this, Queen says.
Queen is part of UMs Numerical
Terradynamic Simulation Group, which crafted software for the Terra environmental
satellite that NASA launched in December 1999. The instrument NTSG programmed scans the
entire world every one to two days, with the ability to hone in on details a kilometer
wide. The satellite monitors a multitude of earthly conditions everything from
vegetation and snow cover to fire activity.
Queen says he had hoped the 2000 fire season would offer five fires of at least 100
acres so UM researchers could test the fire models and algorithms they had developed. What
actually took place went way beyond his expectations. He says there were so many fires
over such a large area for such a long period of time that traditional resource-assessment
tools needed a helping hand.
Queen works to develop practical applications for the remote-sensing tools pioneered by
NASA and UM. He says there is a national technology infrastructure in place that is
powerful but wasnt designed to meet an average fire managers needs in western
Montana during the summer of 2000.
The picture we were getting with the satellites was too big, he says.
We were looking at the entire forest. We couldnt make a specific fire
intervention based on this data. At some point we needed to see the trees.
When the fire season began to seriously heat up in mid-July, Queen and his fellow
researchers teamed up with area Forest Service employees to form an ad hoc group called
FIST the Fire Intelligence Support Team. FIST members gathered around the table to
discuss the information and assessment needs of fire managers and what sort of real-world
applications UM could offer firefighters immediately.
It was sort of like, Hey, someone does care about what we are
doing, Queen says. I knew then that it was possible that what I do would
help an assessment specialist or a planner have better data to make better decisions about
He says the UM team volunteered to help out in any way it could, offering the
equivalent of two full-time workers around the clock until the fires were put out. About
six UM employees found themselves working 18- to 20-hour days during the peak six weeks of
the fire season.
Queen says the first thing they did was put in place some computing resources for
Forest Service Region 1 to access. UM system administrator Saxon Holbrook brought together
server space, a Web site and computers that provided a clearinghouse for NTSG data.
What Saxon put together was kind of an extension of the things we need for our
research activity, Queen says. We opened up our servers so people in the fire
community could have access to our resources. And its all in one spot.
He says this computing infrastructure allowed them to make available many aspects of
Terra science, such as fire detection and monitoring, surface-moisture index modeling and
some vegetation/productivity assessments. The UM group also had its computers busily
ingesting satellite data and mapping fire locations at least once and usually twice
Queen says the team members also adjusted the global algorithms used for Terra to the
regional setting of the Northern Rockies. In general they tweaked the models to be
conservative on estimating fuel danger and conditions but more liberal when it came to
fire activity and spotting.
Part of adjusting the software is understanding what kind of error you can live
with, he says. A model wont be perfect its an abstraction
of reality. But you dont want to have a model that doubles the number of fires that
are actually burning. That doesnt help fire managers with priorities. It leads to
Queen says FIST also got involved with tactical-level fire reconnaissance using an
airplane wired with a digital infrared scanning system. Often used by the military, the
system allowed team members to take fire snapshots with a 1-meter resolution. Queen and
Colin Hardy of the Forest Service Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory contracted with
Minnesota-based Airborne Data Systems to provide the high-tech imagery.
The first day ADS was here, Colin and I got into this two-engine plane and flew
600 miles of reconnaissance, Queen says. We identified hot-spot activity and
priority areas for data collection.
The ADS imagery allowed them to see through smoke and create incredibly detailed maps
of the current fire situation. Queen says the data collected from the plane was processed
using the algorithms designed for the Terra satellite. Fresh information was in the hands
of fire managers two hours after the plane returned from its flyover. Queen says such
close-range fire reconnaissance tools have not been available before.
We put that aircraft in some very challenging situations, he says. We
sent the plane to areas of very complex terrain because as you can imagine
getting a good map in very steep terrain is difficult to do. We had them fly in areas of
thick, intense smoke, over heavy fuels, light fuels, closed canopy, open canopy, areas
that have been harvested, not harvested. ... We were just trying to cover a range of
settings so we could test the performance of our system.
He says it was challenging to collect data over very hot fires since intense burns
could saturate the detector and blind it like looking directly into the sun.
We had to figure out things like: If weve got a fire backing downhill at 3:30
a.m. at 18 percent relative humidity on a southwest-facing slope in lodgepole pine with a
33-percent canopy cover and 100 tons per acre of 1,000-hour fuels, how do you not burn
out? We had to adjust a lot of dials.
Queen says his team developed a good working relationship with Wayne Cook, the incident
commander on the Wilderness Complex fires southwest of Conner. Cook would tell them of
areas where he needed fire reconnaissance.
So we would take the coordinates he gave us, plot them, do out a flight plan and
the ship leaves, Queen says. The ship comes back. Two hours after it hits the
ground, the (geographic information system) analysts on Wayne Cooks team down at the
West Fork Ranger Station are transferring files from our server to their computers. We
could tell them exactly where their hot spots were in terms of (latitude/longitude)
Cook, who has managed fires for 25 years, says the data UM and ADS provided him was
I hope this is a snapshot of the future as far as technology to help fire
managers do our job better, he says. Thats why we came together
to test this technology and determine if it has potential. I hope this will be a stepping
stone to the future.
The images obtained by the ADS plane and processed by UM computers are often stunning.
A picture of the Alder Fire southeast of Missoula, for example, shows a wooded area
shrouded in a haze of smoke. Look at the same image in the infrared, however, and a large
burning mass is revealed.
Pointing at a computer screen, Queen says, The fire we see here cant be
seen with the naked eye.
He says fire managers use a program called Farsite that tries to predict where a fire is
going and at what intensity. The improved data provided by ADS and the FIST team allowed
managers to hone their models and the performance of the Farsite program.
One of the neatest things that came out of all this was that we were able to turn
the science we are doing here at UM to practical uses, Queen says. Thats
something that university researchers dont always get a chance to do.
For more information, contact LLoyd Queen at (406) 243-2709 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.