Where's new technology to fight wildfires?

The fires happening in Colorado (and other states) are horrifying. The lives lost, homes destroyed, residents displaced and devastation to the land is incredible. I can’t even bring myself to think about the fate of the wild animals and birds.

I find it surprising that no one has come up with a better way to contain these fires, before they get so large and out of control. Does anyone know if there is much research in this area? And do you think some states wait too long to bring in extra manpower when faced with a new wildfire?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Keep safe,


Remove the fuel.

Really, that’s the main tool we have against forest fires. Keeping fuel sources (brush, cedar shingles) away from things you want to protect, and burning out the existing fuel sources by periodically allowing smaller fires to burn are the only ways to ensure against devastating fires.

But people like shrubbery and they think cedar shingles look great. They resist keeping houses inside areas cleared of scrub and don’t do maintenance. Steadily clearing forest zones or doing prescribed burns is costly and seems a waste of money during wet years.

Most fires are successfully kept under control. They don’t normally become big fires unless an unexpected change in conditions catches firefighters by surprise. Last summer, one third of the small city of Slave Lake, Alberta, was burned to the ground by a fire that started innocuously enough 10 miles from the city. It was just a small fire that was initially under control until unusually high winds came up and drove it towards the city so fast that there was barely enough time to evacuate people from their homes, let alone fight the fire.

In the case of the Colorado fire, it looks like there was a perfect storm of conditions that supported a small fire growing quickly into a large fire before firefighters could get there to do anything about it.

Actually, the fire fighters were there. It all plays out like an old war story. They tried to make a stand at a ranch between the city and the fire, and they lost that ground. They had to fall back. The Colorado Fires weren’t a case of wild fires catching the firefighters off guard, as many are. They knew this would happen, and they were as ready as they could be. That just wasn’t enough.

In my eyes, forrest fires are a good thing. They bring about a refresh of the cycle of a forrest. We don’t need new technology to fight the fires, we just need to draw hard lines at population centers to keep the fires away from people and property. Many of those people in Colorado Springs that lost their homes lived amongst pine trees, and although pretty, they represent a real hazard that they must accept.

And I hope the concern for the fuzzy animals was tongue in cheek. The animals will be OK.

When I looked up the cause, I believed the first source I read.:frowning: In my pathetic attempt at a defence, it was at least a perfect storm of conditions: an overabundance of dry deadwood thanks to the pine beetle and fire suppression in the past, record-high temperatures and high winds.

I think fire suppression is generally seen as a bad idea now. Even in national parks up here in Canada, they tend to let forest fires run their course now unless they approach inhabited areas.

Clearing deadwood around properties is a good idea for individual owners, and doesn’t have to be just about keeping forest fire fuel to a minimum. A friend of mine has a cabin surrounded by bush, and every fall we make a few huge piles of deadwood and go back in the winter with a bunch of friends to burn them. We call them drinkin’ fires for reasons that shoud be obvious.:slight_smile:

It is a natural cycle, though man has helped in some cases. When nature wants to burn an area she is going to and stopping her would be akin to stopping a rainstorm, man does not yet have that power.

But there are some inroads in wildland fire control. Though most of the tools involve making a fire break, there are some packs now that contain the ability to make a type of firefighting foam that unlike water alone, the foam stays where you spray it, doesn’t run off, and vastly multiplies the effectiveness over water spray packs.

Apparently some believe that wildfires are a good thing. I don’t agree with that line of thinking. Especially when fire decimates over 244,000 acres in one state. We need these forests! Sure, the brush will grow back quickly, but it will take decades for those woods to become majestic once again. I know many times these fires are caused by Mother Nature, but she also causes floods, earthquakes and tornadoes. Sometimes we must fight Mother Nature with everything we’ve got. And ‘what we’ve got’ is not enough when it comes to combating wildfires. We need innovation to win these battles! Firefighters should NOT be caught by surprise. Maybe “small” wildfires need to be handled with more manpower from the onset.

And no, my comment about the wild birds and animals was not made tongue-in-cheek. Sure, some outrun the fire, but many do not escape and die a horrendous death. Not to mention the domesticated animals, such as horses and cattle, that cannot be evacuated on short notice.

My heart goes out to the residents of Colorado. I sincerely hope the firefighters can win this battle and stay safe while doing it

Some plants actually require fire in order to propagate the next generation.



People aren’t saying that this fire is good, in fact they’re saying very much the opposite. Part of the cause of this fire is supposed to have been fire prevention. Wildfires aren’t good but by letting the small ones run their course it prevents a buildup of fuel that causes fires on this scale. The only other real way to prevent fires is to manually remove all of the fuel, and doing that for an entire forest is pretty much impossible, especially in hot and dry conditions.

It may not be the boots-on-the-ground technology the OP wants, but wildfires are a part of Meteorology and the information available has grown a lot in recent years. Fire prediction is a part of some weather forecast computer models which are ran several times a day and made available on the web, and since 1998 the Storm Prediction Center has been issuing fire weather outlooks to warn where the potential for wildfire may be high. The SPC also incorporates fire weather into their excellent analysis maps and have some stand alone fire data too. So there’s a lot more prediction and warning information out there than there used to be.

Once a fire does break out, I’m sure they use satellite imaging and other fancy high tech things to locate the best place to fight it.

You may not agree with it but it is the way natural fires are managed. Wildland fire is a natural occurrence. Long before humans interrupted fire cycles, forests and grasslands regularly burned. We are coming to the end of a long period of stupidity where the formula – fire = bad – was predominant. There are also prescribed burns to reduced the probabilities of firestorms, as well as return the forest to a natural burn cycle.

The two greatest threats with wildland fire today in North America is urban interface encroaching upon wildland buffer zones and the people living/working there not do their jobs to minimize conditions that cause catastrophic fire. The other is climate change. Deny that latter all you want but the research says otherwise.

Full disclosure. I’ve been part of wildland fire teams for more than 30 years. The hardest part has never been on the fireline. The hardest part of fighting fire is fighting the dogma surrounding fire.

Actually, to slightly nitpick here, the phrase “long before humans” is incorrect in much of the western US. Studies that have looked at burn intervals show ranges that are far too frequent to be explained by natural starts. What’s more, forests in areas known to be inhabited or frequently traveled by Native Americans show drastically higher burn frequencies. It’s quite clear that before European settlement, humans were managing the forests with managed burns, and the forest ecosystems are adapted to those conditions. The problem isn’t just Euro-American land managers extinguishing natural blazes, but not setting ones of our own!

Also, to reiterate what others have said, those studies I mentioned earlier that determined burn frequency were largely done by looking at tree rings, which tells us that a tree could survive many low-intensity fires during its life, as opposed to lower frequency but higher intensity fires that are the rule with current management practices.

Also to point out there are fire adapted trees (and I’m sure other plants), that require fire for it’s life cycle. The bark is fire hardened so the tree can usually survive and aspects of reproduction require fire such as opening seed cones. These are part of the majestic trees the OP likes having and blames fire for removing.

Why do you find it surprising? What is the source of your preconceived notions that the state of the art in wildfire technology should be more advanced than it actually is?

Apart from the satellite-based meteorology Fubaya talks about, the only other new piece of technology I’m aware of is this 747-based watertanker, which can lay down a strip of fire retardant 25,000 feet long, compared to a P-3’s drop length of just 2080 feet.


I’d dispute that. It’s possible they accidentally started forest fires with their campfires. It’s also possible they deliberately set them because the new growth that comes in the following years attracts more game, not because they were intentionally managing the forests.

This does not compute. Maybe more of a definitional problem. If they’re setting fires as you seem to allow (and this is fact. North American indians intentionally set fires) then they are managing forests. Perhaps their goal wasn’t to create healthy forests, but the fires they set ‘managed’ forest growth, by my definition.

Setting regular fires for hundreds (thousands?) of years shaped North America’s forests and they are different than the ones encountered by us today.

How is that not managing the forest?

Would this idea work?

Have a system of satellites that orbits continuously above one place over the United States, each over different areas, and have an infrared detector on each that spots locations with either sudden temperature changes (a fire that has just started) or sustained higher than normally encountered temperatures (a fire that has been burning) that are not associated with any man-made structure (such as a coal furnace or power plant). I think this might work because in nature, in the absence of a fire, temperatures change continuously throughout the day due to a combination of solar radiation, ground heating, latent heat transfer, and other effects; by continuously I mean that temperatures won’t jump from 80F to 160F over a minute, as might happen in a fire that started during that minute. Also, since a fire that has been burning for a short while has sustained temperatures that are not encountered in nature in the absence of a fire (according to Wikipedia, even a burning cigarette on its side has a temperature of 750F, and in the middle is 1150F), human technologies and activities (such as coal plants), or atmospheric/geological events even more violent than fires (i.e. volcanoes, lightning strikes), these temperature signals can be detected and analyzed by an algorithm that is fine-tuned to eliminate false positives and true negatives, and sent to fire stations within a certain radius of the signal event, where it can be analyzed and action taken if necessary (if there really is a fire).

It helps that the intensity of radiation emitted is to the fourth power of temperature, and also that satellites, being situated so far above the horizon, can detect a large area of the Earth at once. Also, computing power is probably cheap enough to process this data not in real time, but every minute or so, possibly allowing fires to be detected within minutes of their formation even when they are far from any inhabited location (if they were close to where people lived, they would be detected by the people who lived there).

Thank you all for the bounty of interesting information that was posted.

Meant to edit my post above, but ran out of time.

The idea above is similar to that of detecting gamma-ray bursts in space in that it surveys a large expanse of a “surface,” and detects certain signals by their characteristic properties, while filtering out noise. Gamma ray bursts, although they have an enormous intrinsic brightness, are not very bright and most cannot be seen with the naked eye, but we can still detect them by setting up our instrument’s detection parameter range to contain the signal that the gamma-ray burst appears as. It is interesting that these satellites which detect gamma ray bursts were originally used to detect nuclear explosions.

Similarly, we might be able to set up fire detection satellites that can do the same on Earth, although they might not be sensitive enough to detect fires, or there would be way too much noise.

I guess this is an example of an “early warning system,” in its conception. Is such a system already deployed, or are fires generally detected by a person who calls the fire department? I think this would be totally sufficient for fires in areas with high population densities, but not for forest fires outside urban areas or outside a national forest, where there would be park rangers and wildlife managers who could detect them.