FOCUS ON FIRE
IN THE FOREST
FUNCTION OF FIRE
A GRASP ON SMOKE
BEYOND THE BLAZES
By Andy Smetanka
You don’t have to be particularly observant to notice the effect of fire on men. Watch how they stare into the embers of the barbecue long after the steak is gone. Better yet, next time you’re out driving around during outdoor burning season, watch how six men will stand attentively around a fire the size of a milk crate, all intent on doing their part to help wood and leaves combine with oxygen but still trying to look nonchalant about it. And not always succeeding.
Motivated individuals, of course, pursue ways to make fire not just a fascination but a livelihood as well. LLoyd Queen and Carl Seielstad are two of those guys — fire experts with postdoctoral degrees at the core of UM’s National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis.
The center is the prime locus of an increasingly sophisticated body of technology that brings minute-to-minute remote sensing data to bear on big decisions in wildland firefighting. Center workers rig up relay stations to transmit weather and fuel data to incident commanders via broadband wireless. They shoulder big packs and lay little eggs of surveillance equipment around fire environments. When they go on fires, Queen and Seielstad might sleep on the ground for six weeks and eat MREs three times a day while deploying their science projects and advising firefighters.
Along with some 16 other fire center employees — the number varies a little from season to season — Queen and Seielstad are the brains behind remote-sensing fire intelligence in western Montana. And unlike, say, most Missoulians, for whom wildland firefighting assumes a fitful Nomex-yellow reality only once the valley starts filling with smoke, Queen and Seielstad have fire on their brains pretty much all the time.
A Focus on Fire
“We’re not completely atypical for a MonTEC business, in that our research and development activities are designed to translate to a client out there somewhere. The fundamental difference, of course, is that there’s no privatization of our technology. That’s part of our charter, and why we get money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior.
“The federal dollars we get are for research and development for the fire community, mostly built around technology, of course, but we don’t have an explicit component in our charter to go commercial with those products and services. So, in terms of development activities focusing on an external clientele, we share that with the other people at MonTEC. But we’re not writing a business model. I’m not going downtown and putting up my shingle and selling satellite stuff or anything.”
Queen admits he’d still rather be on campus, but says it was worth the voluntary move to find a more permanent space for the current staff of 18. The MonTEC staff has been “awesome,” he enthuses.
“And we’re thinking puce,” he says, rolling his eyes at the bare walls of his office.
Drolly funny, Queen wears a bristling flattop and several different hats at the fire center, where many institutional byways intersect and administrative entities overlap. “It’s a weird road map,” Queen admits, reaching for a piece of scratch paper to sketch it out.
The primary administrative entity overseeing fire center operations (“Sort of the guy at the top of my food chain,” Queen explains) is the UM College of Forestry and Conservation, which is divided into three departments plus numerous centers and institutes.
The other UM-based research center most closely related to his own, Queen says, is the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG), headed by satellite guru Steve Running. The two of them literally shared a door at the fire center’s original digs, Queen recalls, claiming that the modest, down-to-earth Running is probably the best colleague he’s ever likely to have.
“He’s probably the only person you’ll ever meet about whom you can truly say he’s better at what he does than anyone else in the whole world. He’s also a complete nerd. We kid him that his wife has to buy him Garanimal clothes so that he doesn’t wear checks and stripes together.
“To be real honest with you, though,” Queen admits, “the fire center and NTSG really don’t do that much research together. What Steve does is mostly global ecosystem physiology — carbon balance stuff — and what we focus on is fire almost exclusively. The relationship couldn’t be better, but they’re two separate things.”
The fire center is divided into three elements, Queen says. There’s the remote-sensing program — “the airplane and satellite stuff, the laser altimetry stuff” — under project manager Jim Riddering. Then there’s the geographic information systems — or computer mapping — program headed by Don Helmbrecht. And finally, the fire fuels program managed by Carl Seielstad. His colleagues tend to have experience in all three areas, Queen says, but concentrate their efforts largely on one. Even so, there’s a lot of beneficial overlap.
“The problem right off the bat,” says Queen, “is that none of our projects falls exclusively into any one of these organizational areas. The fuels work that Carl does has its GIS component and its remote sensing component. Organizationally, though, this works pretty well. We’ve been in existence now for five years, we’ve tried on a number of organizational styles, and this one works for us.”
Collectively, Queen adds, his team members bring more than a hundred years of fire experience to the job. Helmbrecht and Riddering were both Hotshot firefighters. Seielstad, in particular, seems to have done everything there is to do on a wildfire: Hotshot, engine, smokejumper, spotter and incident commander.
Queen worked two seasons on a hand crew in northern Minnesota, where he says the biggest burn he was ever assigned to was a 60-acre grass fire. But since then he has worked more than 70 large fire incidents, giving him the background to know whom to recruit.
“With a few, maybe three or four exceptions, everybody working in our three program areas comes with a primary wildland firefighter background. That expertise is our greatest asset.”
Building a Better Birdhouse
The gadget this birdhouse is intended to protect, called a mote, is a suite of sensors for gathering temperature, relative humidity and other weather data, piggybacked to a minicomputer with a miniature Linux operating system and 900-megahertz radio. The whole effort, not counting the anemometer that plugs into a separate phone jack on the birdhouse, is smaller than a box of kitchen matches. Fire center researchers obtain these minicomputers, each assembled from around $100 worth of components, through a partnership with researchers at the University of Colorado and customize them with sensor-packs of their own devising. Soldering guns are as common as coffee cups in this office.
A graduate student named Carl Hartung, on loan from Colorado for the summer, programmed the driver that makes the system go. He finally got a chance to deploy the motes and their shelters — officially still in the prototype stage — on the Selway-Salmon Complex of fires near Darby last summer.
Seielstad says each mote is powered by AA batteries (nearly everything on a fire line, Seielstad claims, is powered by AA batteries) that last only a day and a half if the mote is continuously transmitting data and up to three weeks if the mote is programmed to power up for data collection only at predetermined intervals.
One practical problem encountered during dry runs of the new technology is that the chronometers in the motes tend to drift over time. Meaning, Seielstad says, that the string of motes placed strategically around the fire environment tend to fall out of sync with one another and in doing so compromise the network that moves the intelligence they’ve collected to the people who want to see it.
A mote with a drifting clock might wake up, try to send its “packet” of data, realize there’s no one else on the network to hear it and power back down. The bigger problem with that, explains Seielstad, is that once the motes are placed in the field, it’s difficult to reprogram their settings or patch up a compromised network short of sending someone out to fiddle with it.
interesting question from a computer science standpoint is
how to make the system self-healing — how to set up a
network that can keep running if a node is, say, damaged by
fire. Remaining nodes have to reorganize and find alternative
pathways around the burned-up node without someone having to
go out and monkey around with it.”
However, this is one of the goals of the wireless weather project. Seielstad, with some dozen years of on-the-ground fire experience, clearly enjoys meeting these technological challenges. All the same, he says that the technological conundrums make office work as demanding in its own way as swinging a pulaski.
“You work all day fighting fire and when you’re done, you did something,” he says simply. “You don’t have to go home and think about it, whereas with this job you’ve been working all day on something that maybe didn’t work. You want to go home and play with the kids but you just keep thinking about that thing not working.”
Can We Play, Too?
However, Queen says, it’s “practically cosmic” when all the relevant forces line up just right to make that happen. The fire center’s chief strategy and best hope for getting its men and the gear deployed in the field is something called the Fire Intelligence Module: essentially an organizational mechanism for combining individual “single resources” — that is, expert advisers like Queen and Seielstad — into one multitalented team of experts that can be ordered anywhere. A sort of Superfriends of wildland fire intelligence, only with their super powers limited to an advisory capacity.
“It’s a concept we came up with about a year and a half ago” Queen explains, “and it’s one of the best strategies, I think, that we’ve toyed with for taking our research and development, our technology, our ideas, and bringing them to the ground. If a fire gets really complex, where there’s a need to get better and faster quantitative data on that fire, that’s the trigger for the fire module. It’s a really non-traditional concept.”
A simple fire, as Seielstad explains, is ideally one that burns from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., is conveniently located and doesn’t have many logistical problems involving wildland-urban interface. Complex fires, on the other hand, are nowhere near roads, exceed operational periods, defy objectives, require lengthy questionnaires and can get pretty political when it comes to assigning relative values to the natural and man-made items that stand to get burned. Resources allocated to complex fires, he explains, are often rushed into an administrative and strategic void created as soon as they cease to be simple fires.
The Fire Intelligence Module’s function, Queen states emphatically, is not to put out fires. For starters, they don’t advise on fire suppression — only fire use, i.e. fires allowed to burn for resource benefit. Secondly, they’re on fire-use incidents only to advise. The role of the FIM, as Queen sees it, is to use technology developed by the fire center to move information more efficiently from data collection to decision-making.
Hopefully without getting in anybody else’s way. Fire is a very complex organization, Queen explains, involving coordination between nearly two dozen groups from the state and federal level down to local law enforcement just in the Northern Rockies. There are rivalries and ingrained prejudices. There is technophobia and resistance to innovation.
“The amount of knowledge and experience with technology [in the fire community] is widely variable right now,” seconds Seielstad, “and I think generally the fire community is distrustful of new technology — rightly so, in many ways. One of the things about the intelligence module is that we try to allay people’s concerns that they’re going to get stuck with stuff they don’t need. We’ve gone around and around with it. There are definitely things that fire could do better from our perspective, but there are also various places where things are better left alone. Walking that tightrope is difficult, and the general feeling on the fire side, I would say, is to err on the side of leaving things alone.”
Team members have all heard their share of disparaging remarks about “university types,” he affirms, adding that there probably isn’t a firefighter out there who hasn’t had a bad experience with a researcher showing up on a fire and having it somehow turn into a bad deal.
“It takes a convergence of a lot of different things for a bunch of university people to be on a fire and say to the team, ‘Hey, look, we want to stand in front of this uncontrolled wildland fire and take a bunch of measurements and take a bunch of cool pictures and send them to you — is that OK with you?’ We’ve certainly had our opportunities to make ourselves look bad.”
Recently, however, they’ve taken most of those opportunities to make themselves look good. Queen recently returned from a single-resource assignment on a fire in Grand Canyon National Park, where a little gentle ingratiating and a convincing show of fire center technology won over some of the prickliest skeptics.
“Inevitably for the first two or three days,” he muses, “people are going to be like, ‘Who the hell are you? Why are you here? How much do you cost? Can you fit into this organization?’ When I left the Grand Canyon fire, all five section chiefs from the overhead team came up and said, ‘If you ever have trouble getting on a fire again, have them call me and I’ll vouch for you.’”
“My first day there, the planning section chief introduced me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this professor from a university here and God knows how many millions this is costing us and whether it’s going to be useful or not.’ Three days later, the same guy came back and said we could have anything we wanted.”
Forging these friendly relationships with local agencies, Queen contends, is key to the future of the organization, which also cooperates closely with the Nine Mile Ranger District, the Fire Sciences Laboratory and numerous other local agencies, centers and institutes.
“I’m prepared to say,” Queen ventures, “though I don’t think Carl would be quite this bold, that there’s nobody else in the country doing this. Again, for me it comes back to that combination of fire experience and technology experience coming together in the right places and in the right way. If it costs too much or if it’s done inappropriately or if we ever violate any safety protocol, we’re done. We have zero degrees of freedom to screw anything up. Like I say, a lot of things have to line up just right. And the relationships and a record of past successes are key.”
The fire module logged another successful outing when it deployed to the Selway-Salmon Complex of fires near Darby Aug. 24-Sept. 12. The complex involved 46 wilderness fires that were allowed to burn for resource benefit. The module’s mission: help administrators manage public safety — especially outfitters and other people operating in the fire environment.
Seielstad says the module deployed a Local Area Network that connected fire camp, the U.S. Forest Service District Office, three mountaintop fire lookouts and Kit Carson Campground. Steerable surveillance cameras were installed at the lookouts atop Spot Mountain and Hell’s Half Acre to provide real-time fire intelligence.
cameras were used to monitor fire behavior near public access
points like roads and camps,” Seielstad says.
“Once we had our broadband system set up, we could do unbelievable things,” he says. “We were able to communicate and surf the Internet in the middle of the wilderness.”
And the action didn’t end there. On Sept. 22 the module hit the road again — this time deployed to a blaze in California’s Lassen National Park to provide smoke monitoring.
“Well, who didn’t?” he practically gasps. “You know how guys will sit around staring into a campfire? Well, that’s just magnified on a big fire. It’s fascinating. And it’s exciting. These people are basically your brothers and sisters for the season.”
It’s Seielstad, though, who really itched for a fire to go on this summer. It’s kind of like sports, he says: the fitness, the teamwork, the friendly competition among crews and, most of all, the sense of achievement. The Pasayten people would have the Fire Intelligence Module back in a heartbeat, he contends, but they might not have another fire that requires it for 20 years. Still, Seielstad predicts that the wildland-urban interface areas burgeoning across the West are bound to result in more and more complex fires in coming decades. The Fire Intelligence Module could well prove to be years ahead of its time.
“The whole fire thing just gets
into you,” he says, gazing
out the window. “It’s really fun, for one thing. You’re
out in the woods, there’s kind of a team feeling to it. Maybe
the overgrown kid thing again — play high school sports and
part of all these teams and you want to prolong it somehow without
playing city-league basketball. For us, Hotshot crews are totally
a surrogate for playing football.”