Battling blazes

Western fires preview high-tech additions to firefighting arsenal

In the future, firefighters who find themselves battling the same kind of forest fires that have plagued western states in recent weeks could have high-tech help from several new or experimental technologies developed by divisions of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The technologies include tools as esoteric as a mathematical algorithm that tells a weather satellite when to take a picture of a fire more than 22,000 miles below and a mobile wind profiler that can measure the winds whipping down mountain ravines long before a fire begins to rage out of control.

Another key piece of future firefighting arsenals could be FX-Net, a weather forecasting system that has been adapted to work on laptop computers so it can be used in the field.

Although still officially experimental, FX-Net already gives meteorologists at a fire site "a better ability to see not only what's happening right now in a fire, but what's going to happen in next the 10 minutes or half-hour," said Larry Van Bussum, NOAA staff meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

That capability translates to better safety on the fire line, Van Bussum said. "You're looking for critical things like wind shifts that can catch people unawares."

Trial by Fire

Some of the technologies have been brought to bear on the headline-making fires near Denver and Durango, Colo., which destroyed more than 200,000 acres of timberland before they were contained, and the so-called Rodeo-Chediski fire near Show Low, Ariz., which scorched at least 586 square miles — an area larger than Los Angeles.

For example, the Wildfire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm (ABBA) is helping NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., keep track of the Colorado fires. ABBA also detected the Arizona fire in its early stages.

"We saw it really take off," said Elaine Prins, the NOAA research meteorologist who developed the algorithm. "In an hour and a half, it went from very small detection to a very hot fire."

ABBA is a code in the computers aboard NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) numbers 8 and 10. It automatically detects wildfires in the images taken by the satellites and separates those images into several categories, including "past" fire, "existing" fire, "high" or "low" fire, and many ranges in between, Prins said. The images are updated every half-hour and posted to NOAA's Web site every 90 minutes.

The algorithm itself isn't exactly new, but its use in fighting fires on American soil is. Developed by a team at NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service at the University of Wisconsin, ABBA was installed on the GOES 8 and 10 satellites in the mid-1990s to search for fires in South America, Prins said. Many South American governments don't have the resources to search millions of square miles of isolated forests for illegal fires that subsistence farmers often use to clear land.

By contrast, North America is so populated that people usually detect fires at their inception, Prins said. But a few years ago, officials at Environment Canada — the Canadian equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency — asked NOAA to use the algorithm to search for fires in that country's remote northern regions.

The process worked so well that NOAA began using ABBA in the United States on an experimental basis in 2001, and officials expect to make it fully operational by the end of this summer, according to a NOAA spokeswoman.

"The real application of this technology in the [United States] is not in being the first to detect the fire but in being able to monitor fires...so we can see if they are intensifying or decreasing," Prins said. "We provide that information in real time to weather forecasters, and they can combine it with [readings of] surface pressure, winds and humidity. That allows them to make a more accurate forecast."

Weather in Motion

More accurate forecasts at fire sites should be standard fare next year when a mobile version of a technology called FX-Net is expected to become operational, according to Carl Gorski, deputy chief of the Meteorological Services Division at the National Weather Service's Western Region Headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Developed last year at NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., FX-Net is a software application that integrates a wide variety of meteorological data — including satellite pictures, radar imagery and text data — into one screen, saving forecasters time and energy in a crisis situation.

"Before this, many forecasters had equipment that wasn't integrated, and they had to walk away from their desktops and go to separate places in offices for radar images, temperature readings — all the elements they needed to make a forecast," Gorski said.

An experimental version of FX-Net has been in use at the National Interagency Fire Center and in NWS' 11 Geographic Area Coordination Centers throughout the country since November 2001.

But it is during wildfires or situations involving hazardous materials that immediate access to weather data could prevent a calamity, so NWS is experimenting with a version of FX-Net that will operate on a laptop using a satellite-based Internet service.

Field trials of the mobile version of FX-NET began during the 2001 fire season and are being conducted again this year, Gorski said. The mobile FX-Net is currently being used experimentally by forecasters helping battle a fire that covers more than 72,000 acres in Dixie National Forest in southern Utah.

The system's security is being tested, as is its compatibility with the satellite communications service. Plus, "we had to consider whether the laptops can function in a very hot, dusty environment," Gorski said. If all goes well, the mobile FX-Net will be operational by mid-2003, he added.

Where the Wind Blows

The most futuristic technology in NOAA's firefighting arsenal is still being developed, but a prototype could be available by next summer. The agency's Environmental Technology Laboratory in Boulder is experimenting with a mobile version of a wind profiler that can measure winds aloft in the early morning and enable forecasters to predict wind conditions later in the day when heat from the fire and the sun brings faster-moving winds closer to the ground.

Wind profilers aren't a cutting-edge technology — they were developed a decade or so ago for the Army, according to Allen White, a research meteorologist who is in charge of the laboratory's coastal weather and air quality group.

"The Army wanted to get rid of their stockpile of warfare materials, and the best way for them to do that was to burn them," White said. "When you're going to do burnings of any toxic material, you really need to be aware of how and where that pollution is going. So a wind profiler is a way of detecting what the winds are going to be like near the surface, but also aloft when the pollution gets airborne."

In essence, a wind profiler resembles "a Doppler radar pointed upward," White said. The Doppler radar used for TV weather reports produces images by bouncing electromagnetic pulses off water droplets in the atmosphere, while a wind profiler bounces pulses off turbulence created by atmospheric fluctuations in humidity, temperature and pressure.

Whether bounced off water or wind, however, the pulses that return to the radar's sensors are skewed by a Doppler shift, which White describes as something akin to "standing still and listening to a train whistle as the train approaches and then passes you." Measuring the Doppler shift enables meteorologists to calculate wind speed and direction.

NWS has a network of 30 permanent wind profilers at locations throughout the Midwest, but those instruments aren't suitable for fire monitoring because their powerful radar measures winds as high as 50,000 feet above the earth, White said. "That measurement is too high up in the atmosphere to be useful for firefighting."

On the other hand, the mobile wind profiler, which weighs 2,400 pounds, is compact enough that it can be pulled into isolated areas behind a pickup truck or airlifted to a fire site by helicopter. Because of its mobility, the instrument will be able to measure winds in the sort of rough, complex terrain in which fires often start and which is difficult to simulate using numerical models on a computer back at regional headquarters.

In addition, the mobile wind profiler can measure changing wind direction and speed every 15 minutes — valuable information when a fire is rapidly changing course, as the fires in Colorado and Arizona have done.

"Wind speed is important because that makes the fire spread faster," White said. "And wind direction is important because that tells the firefighters which direction the fire will go. All these fires [in the Western states] have had meteorologists out there trying to predict what the fire will do each day."

The Environmental Technology Laboratory will be conducting field tests on the mobile profiler this summer. In addition, White said, the developers of FX-Net are working on an application that will display the wind profiler data along with data already in the system.

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