Fires reveal challenges for technology

Months ago, a frustrated research forester sent a memo to U.S. Forest headquarters in Washington, D.C., complaining that computers used to simulate fires and plot their direction were far too slow to handle any potential catastrophe.

Now, as he looks out from his office window in Missoula, Mont., Mark Finney sees only smoke and clouds as the worst fires in a decade spread through the American West, demolishing millions of acres of land.

Although federal and state authorities are using information technology to a greater extent than ever before to fight the western blazes, Finney's memo to John Arthur, the chief information officer for the fire service, shows more can be done.

"If and when accidents occur, I believe that it would be difficult for the Forest Service to make a convincing argument that it had met or seriously attempted to meet the standard of using the best technology available for decision-making," Finney wrote.

Forest Service officials acknowledge that the technology could be better, but deny that the architecture being used to fight the blazes is inadequate.

"Researchers work on the leading edge of technology. They need to do that," said Mike Funston, who is in charge of the Forest Service's computer and information systems. "It wouldn't be in the taxpayers' best interest to buy state-of-the-art technology and equip all 30,000 people in the system with it.''

Joseph Leo, CIO for the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, said information technology has made major inroads this season in fighting fires.

At the Kansas City, Mo., National Information Technology Center, which is run by USDA, a multiagency effort is under way to use e-mail and the Internet to help firefighters get the equipment and personnel they need to disperse to fires. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group is online at: www.nwcg.gov.

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