Colorado fights wildfire with military technology

Both multi-role aircraft fly to search for potential fires.

Shahn Sederberg/CDOT Aeronautics Division

Wildfires are a major concern in Western Colorado, but infrared and geospatial technologies are helping the state better prepare in a place with a sharper eye in the sky.

Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft Program uses infrared technology, two color cameras and a geospatial database of high-performance aircraft to contain fires across the state.

“The camera is a military-grade camera, just like it’s used for a lot of defense-type missions,” said Bruce Dicken, northwest deputy chief of the Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control. “It’s very precise, it tells you exactly where you’re looking.”

The program was the first of its kind in the country.

“It’s hard to know exactly where the fire is if it’s burning a particular canyon, mountain or hill without being able to actually see it,” he said. “You can see it from an airplane or a helicopter, but one of the things that infrared does is that infrared can see through smoke.”

Colorado has two such planes stationed in Centennial, and they can reach most of the state in less than an hour if weather affects takeoff. Both aircraft are Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, which are turboprop aircraft that can safely fly at altitudes above 20,000 feet.

“So far this year we have found 81 new fires; 75 of those were in the state of Colorado,” Dicken said.

The aircraft are equipped with infrared and color sensors operated by two sensor operators from the Department of Wildland Fire Prevention and Control staff and piloted.

The aircraft is integrated with a geospatial database that displays incident images and details to local fire managers through a web application called the Colorado Wildfire Information System, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

“They use this computer system not only to manipulate cameras, but to draw a map, create reports and email things and things like that,” Dicken said.

The planes are primarily used to detect fires, but also provide real-time information to ground forces, a tactic used during the Grizzly Creek fire.

“Every day while it was happening, we were flying over the fire,” he said. “With the camera, we’ll have the ability to track the outer perimeter of the fire, put it on the map and send it to people on the ground so they know exactly where the fire is and where they need to put their efforts.”

Operators who work in the back of the plane also have the ability to map where lightning has struck and check the area for fires that are not yet smoking.

“On board, they can pull up the lightning map and actually track where the lightning struck and go look at those areas specifically,” said Ryan McCully, deputy chief of the fire prevention and control division’s northwest region. “If an area has gotten a lot of lightning, they can really go and search that area and see if they can find any new fires.”

The fire in the infrared camera causes the fire to pop out, McCulley said. In the past, the state had to wait to spot smoke from aircraft, which could be unpredictable for a contained fire in isolated areas.

“People seeing smoke and calling 911 is one way that still happens,” he said, “but historically it would have been just putting someone in a plane and looking for smoke.”

That’s an advantage for the state of Colorado with broad applications, Dicken said. Although it was purchased specifically for wildfires, it has many capabilities, whether it’s search and rescue, flood management or even mudslide assessment.

“I’m thinking of Glenwood Canyon and some of the mudslides,” he said. “It would have been a great tool because it would have let people know what the damage was probably long before they could get in there and assess it. So it’s a tool available for all of those things.”

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