What are some key decisions in fighting wildfires?
Thousands of wildfires ignite in the US each year and each one requires firefighters to make quick decisions, often in difficult conditions like high winds and lightning. Crews and managers must determine when to bring in aircraft, what time of day is best to battle flames, whether to evacuate residents and even if certain fires should be extinguished at all. In the West, which sees many of the country’s largest fires, they do all this amid the backdrop of prolonged drought and other climate change-induced conditions that have made wildfires more destructive. Other challenges include a century of reflexive wildfire suppression and overgrown forests, experts say and communities that have crept into fire-prone areas. Russ Lane, fire operations chief for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources in the US, explains how some key fire fighting decisions are made:
Why do fire managers let some wildfires burn?
Sometimes fires fit a beneficial land management goal, like when they burn in a wilderness area or national park. Fires are part of the natural forest cycle and “at times that’s the right approach,” said Lane, who is in his 35th season as a fire fighter, much of that spent in western Oregon. He joined Washington’s natural resources agency in 2019.
Also, wildfires sometimes burn in areas where it is unsafe to put firefighters.
When do fire managers deploy aircraft?
Planes or helicopters are used if a wildfire is burning too intensely to send in ground forces or if aircraft are the best way to deliver water or retardant, Lane said. “You want to hit a fire quick so it stays small,” Lane said.
The goal is to keep them from erupting into megafires. Cal Fire, California’s fire fighting agency, keeps an average of 95 percent of blazes to 10 acres (4 hectares) or less.
But Lane said aircraft alone are usually not enough to extinguish a fire. “It takes boots on the ground.”
Aircraft also can face numerous visibility limitations when trying to make water drops on a wildfire.
How has technology helped?
When it comes to early detection, one innovation is replacing fire lookout towers staffed by humans with cameras in remote areas, many of them in high-definition and armed with artificial intelligence to discern a smoke plume from morning fog. There are 800 such cameras scattered across California, Nevada and Oregon.
Fire managers also routinely summon military drones to fly over fires at night, using heat imaging to map their boundaries and hot spots. They can use satellite imagery to plot the course of smoke and ash.
Source: Yakima Herald