The fire next time

For weeks this fall the U.S. Forest Service battled a fire across California terrain so rugged that firefighters could do little more than keep its raging flames from spreading.

Ultimately, firefighters held back the blaze, using for the first time technology, rather than hoses, as their weapon of choice.

With help from a nearby Army base, the Forest Service deployed high-speed phone lines, Internet connectivity and geographic information systems (GIS) applications to give firefighters fast access to information critical to stopping the flames.

"The biggest difference when I returned was that the [new lines] allowed greater access to the information that was useful for the firefighting effort," said Roderick Florence, a communications unit leader for the Forest Service. For example, GIS plotting mapped a detailed progression of the fire, he said.

Firefighters also were able to develop computer models to predict how the fire would progress as a result of weather conditions. Those on the front line used these models to know what to expect, Florence said.

The Forest Service asked the technology group at Fort Hunter Liggett, the eighth-largest Army installation in the country, to help set up a fire camp with networking capabilities.

The camp, known as the South Kirk Complex, originally was outfitted with 12 copper lines spliced from the cable loop surrounding the fort for telephone communications. But as the fire spread and additional personnel were brought in, those lines became obsolete within a week, said Keith Gray, director of information management at Fort Hunter Liggett.

The Forest Service then obtained a microwave-based communications system that provided another 24 phone lines connected to the fort's network switch. But even those additional lines did not meet the requirements of the 1,300 people, including firefighters and administrative personnel, who battled the blaze, Florence said.

Efforts to secure logistical resources needed to keep the camp running, such as medical products, food and water, tied up phone lines needed for voice communications and faxes. On just one day the camp received 15,000 sent and received faxes, Florence said. Before the fire, Fort Hunter Liggett officials had considered buying a High-bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (HDSL) solution from two local companies. The fire, which began Sept. 8 after a severe lightning storm, persuaded them to do it.

Fremont, Calif.-based Vina Technologies and PairGain Technologies Inc., Tustin, Calif., developed a solution that provided an additional 24 lines of phone service and an Internet connection to the remote fire camp. The phone capabilities enabled functions such as food service, logistics and paramedics to operate on separate lines. And firefighters used the Internet to find weather information, satellite images and other GIS data.

The solution, completely installed in less than 24 hours, included two PairGain T1 Integrators, one in the telecommunications center at Fort Hunter Liggett and the other nine miles away at the South Kirk Complex. The integrators make it possible to combine voice and data traffic over a single network circuit.

A GIS truck with equipment, maps and imaging data was set up to provide daily updates for the Forest Service and firefighters.

"They were producing release maps daily on where the fire line was, where it was going and how much land had burned," Florence said. "The increased communications had a direct bearing on the fire suppression."

No firefighters were hurt during the blaze, a fact that Florence called "spectacular" and that would not have been possible without the technology. The fire, which has scorched more than 85,000 acres over seven weeks, was about 95 percent contained as of last week.

The advanced technology used to battle this fire was a far cry from the resources available the last time a major fire hit the area, in 1977. "Basically the only information they had then was from the pilots" flying over the blaze, Gray said.

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