Feds seek IT cure for fire

In trying to determine when to let wildfires run their course and when to put them out, two federal agencies are working together on technology projects to monitor fires and smoke on federal lands.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service manage about 450 million acres of land, and each year dozens of fires, small and large, rage on many of those acres. Some of the fires are set intentionally by the agencies as a way to rid the landscape of "fuel" that might feed a larger, more destructive fire in the future. And some of the fires result from careless campers or lightning.

Sometimes the agencies are putting out wildfires at the same time they are setting "preventive" fires elsewhere. And to some federal officials, that approach does not make the most of federal resources and may be putting firefighters in unnecessary danger. "Why are we burning and extinguishing all at the same time?" asked Robert Heaton, a BLM contracting specialist.

The agencies are looking for a new software tool that will help federal agencies manage fires more wisely.

The software would help officials determine when to set fires and when to let nature run its course, by figuring out when wildfires would serve as preventive fires if they were allowed to burn. The agencies envision an application that would enable officials to "model" a fire - to run analyses to predict the direction and final size of a fire. "What this does is give us some ability to make choices" on when to set preventive fires, on which fires to extinguish and on which ones to leave burning, Heaton said.

The federal government has been using a Fire Effects Tradeoff Model software program developed by CH2M Hill Inc. The program combines Microsoft Corp.'s Access, Visual Basic and Fortran into a product for analyzing the effects of fires. But last month, BLM announced to industry that it was looking for a vendor to provide a new, enhanced version of the software.

The software tool will be important in explaining to people living near federal lands why some fires are set intentionally and why some are allowed to burn, according to Ken Snell, a BLM employee overseeing the project. "Eventually, we're going to have to demonstrate that there is a trade-off [when wildfires are allowed to burn]," Snell said. The trade-off comes in the form of fires that prevent larger, more dangerous fires, he said.

But BLM, along with the Forest Service, is seeking another tool that will help it decide when to let fires rage and when to extinguish them.

The two agencies plan to contract with the state of Oregon to put in place a network of smoke-monitoring devices in Oregon and in Washington. The network will let the federal agencies determine when pollution from fires is too heavy and when to start putting out a fire.

Snell said Oregon officials, who already have one smoke-monitoring network in place, will be responsible for collecting the data from the smoke sensors and putting it into an electronic database that federal officials will be able to access for making decisions on controlling fires.

Michael Willig, a professor of biology at Texas Tech University, agreed with the approach of letting some fires burn and described fires as necessary players in forest and prairie ecosystems, helping maintain and shape the land. "[Fires] sort of maintain forests or prairies in the state that we find them," he said. He said stopping some fires may actually adversely affect the wildlife that officials are trying to preserve when they extinguish fires. "If we intervene to prevent the fire, [wildlife] may change," he said.

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