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New Forest Fire-Fighting Technology

With the long hot days of summer in the northern hemisphere come wildfires in many parts of the world. Paul Sisco reports on some new technologies being tried in the United States to detect and battle them.

It is hot and dry in the western United States and that means wildfires. In North America, the season has begun with unusual intensity. Max Fratus battled a recent wildfire that destroyed a thousand homes in the Sierra Mountains of California.

"I talk to people that have been in the fire service their entire career, and not only this fire, but fires in preceding years -- because of the drought, because of the fuel conditions -- they've produced fire behavior, flame links, intensities that we had never really experienced before,” he said. “Everything that we had to throw at it we did, and it just seems to burn right through it. I've never seen a fire come through here of anything of that magnitude."

The first defense against forest fires is early detection. In Northern California computerized cameras are replacing traditional lookouts and fire towers. The camera system is called Fire Hawk. Dale McGill of the California Forest Service said, “On the very first day it was activated we found a fire and about 30 seconds later the phone rang."

It has been the first alert on several fires, according to McGill. He said, "Right away we can tell whether it's going to be a very active fire or it’s going to be a fire that perhaps is not anything at all."

The camera detects smoke by day and heat at night, spinning 360 degrees every four minutes. When it spots something the computer instantly maps the exact location. The system is proving effective and efficient, and more are being installed. Also in California, NASA, the U.S. space agency, is working with Forest Service researchers to convert drones, officially called "UAS", or unmanned aerial systems, into fire-fighting tools.

Vince Ambrosia of NASA said, "A fire manager on a wildfire condition, who doesn't know where his fire is going, could launch an unmanned aerial vehicle and with the imaging capabilities on-board the platform can ascertain where the fire is, how fast it's moving; does he have any resources or personnel that might be in danger."

They'll relay thermal images and data to portable communication stations on the ground. None too soon. More than one million hectares have already burned this year in the hot dry western United States, and firefighters are currently battling a major wildfire in North Central Arizona.