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Infrared Technology from Aircraft Helps Pioneer Firefighters

Fighting the Pioneer Fire isn’t limited to tools like shovels and pulaskis; or to the more advanced equipment like the hotshot crews, helicopters, water scoopers, air tankers, and engines that have been hitting the fire hard every day over the last several weeks. Todays’ firefighters are getting assistance from thermal infrared sensors and microwave transmitters on aircraft that capture critical, real-time imagery of fire activity. Most people aren’t aware that this military-grade level technology is used behind the scenes to support ground crews.

Photo of a pilot in a cockpit wearing a helmet.The Cobra helicopter from the pilot’s seat, flying a mission on the Pioneer Fire.

One of two Forest Service Bell 209 (formerly the AH-1) Cobra helicopters are flying day missions and either a Citation or Super King Air is flying at night. Each aircraft type uses infrared to collect data that personnel use to inform formulate suppression tactics.

The Cobra has been assigned to the Pioneer Fire for daytime missions, flying above the fire perimeter, often feeding real-time data to line crews to locate hotspots. A microwave transmitter onboard is capable of transmitting real-time color and infrared video to a handheld receiver three to five miles away, or a vehicle based receiver, up to 30 miles away.

Along with the Cobra’s pilot, the Air Tactical Group Supervisor operates an infrared camera that captures video identifying heat sources and areas of heat intensity. It is especially useful during mop-up and burn-out operations, or monitoring fire activity. Flight operation of the Cobra is only limited by smoke, adverse weather, and the other air operations. It’s been proven to be an effective and integral part of wildland firefighting operations.

Photo of the fire without the infrared. Photo of infrared image of the fire.
Images of the Pioneer Fire perimeter with infrared and without, north of Lowman.

Fire managers for the Pioneer Fire have also been using a fixed wing aircraft from the National Infrared Operations outfitted with a thermal infrared scanner since its start in July. Based out of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, either a Cessna Citation Bravo II or a Beechcraft Super King Air 200 fly the fire each night they capture powerful data identifying areas of intense heat and spotting sources of heat as well as mapping the entire fire perimeter.

Photo of a red and with small plan with the Forest Service Shield on the tail.Beechcraft Super King Air 200
Photo of a map with a red line around the fire border and a bright yellow showing the intense heat.Infrared imagery taken by National Infrared Operations of the northern perimeter of the Pioneer Fire. Yellow indicates areas of heat, north of Lowman. The red line has been drawn by an infrared interpreter, and it indicates the interpreted heat perimeter.

The infrared line scanner captures a very large area, and can detect very small fires. The scanner is capable of detecting heat sources as small as 6 inches at 10,000 feet above ground. Once in fire managers’ hands, the collected data is used to prioritize on-the-ground and aerial fire-fighting direction. In the heart of fire season, both National Infrared Operation planes are covering numerous fires, across several states, during each mission. This enables sharing costs of the asset. These planes can cover 30 incidents or more each night.

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