Legislation advances toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety

esperanza fire fatalities
Five firefighters that worked on this engine were killed on the Esperanza Fire October 26, 2006 while protecting an unoccupied house. The firefighters did not know the location of the fire, and their Division Supervisor thought the crew was at a different, and safe, location.  A similar situation occurred on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 where 19 firefighters were killed. The crew did not know the location of the fire and others assumed they were in a different, and safe, location. Photo from the official Esperanza Fire fatality report.

A Senate Bill introduced in January of this year took an important step through the legislative process Tuesday. The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, Senate Bill 2290, was approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It still has to be acted upon in the House of Representatives and the full Senate but this unanimous vote in committee is a good sign. It was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Cory Gardner (R-CO).

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when one or both of these critical pieces of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Experanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives. Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

The key points, below, in the legislation as currently written, have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

  • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
  • Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 1 year)
  • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 1 year)
  • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
  • Assign air resource advisors to Type 1 incidents. (no time requirement)
  • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
  • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
  • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)
  • Conduct a study to determine the feasibility of operating aircraft at night when managing wildland fires. (within 1 year)

A press release issued by Senator Cantwell’s office (below) gave a shout-out to Wildfire Today for our relentless pursuit of the Holy Grail. Here is the complete text:

Cantwell Bill to Modernize Firefighting Technology Passes Committee

Legislation would bring state-of-the-art technology, including real-time mapping and GPS locators, to firelines across the country

Washington, D.C. — Today, at a business meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) – the committee’s top Democrat –  secured passage of her bipartisan Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act. The bill passed through committee unanimously.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), increases the use of technology to keep firefighters and communities safe, better reduce the risks from wildfires, and increase the effectiveness of wildfire response.

“We owe it to the brave men and women who risk their lives to fight wildfires to equip them with the best available technology, to keep them safe, and to ensure their efforts are effective,” said Senator Cantwell in her opening statement before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Included in the bill are measures to increase firefighter safety by providing crews on wildfires with GPS locators and using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of mapping aircraft and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety. The bill also helps protect families and communities by assisting with smoke forecasting and planning for the impacts of smoke from wildfires.

The bill also increases collaboration across government agencies to better strategically plan and stage resources before wildfires occur. Specifically, the bill directs the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service to work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and U.S. National Labs, such as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, to better predict the areas most likely to experience large wildfires during fire season, enhancing our ability to plan.

This legislation also takes aim at preventing erosion and landslides that can occur after wildfires by authorizing disaster agencies to make use of NASA’s tools to speed-up the installation of post-fire, erosion-prevention measures, such as the seeding of recently-burnt areas.

In addition to the use of advanced technology, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act requires that trends in firefighter injuries be analyzed in order to target training to prevent future injuries and fatalities.

Earlier this year, Senator Cantwell led a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers to enact the largest package of forestry and wildfire legislation in 15 years. Cantwell’s bill established a contingency account for funding the fighting of wildfires in bad years and helped secure over $2 billion in yearly funding for the account for each of the next 10 years. The funding will allow the Forest Service to end its practice of borrowing funds to fight wildfires from much-needed restoration work, freeing up over $100 million for fire risk projects, including thinning.

The full text of the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act can be found here.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “Legislation advances toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety”

  1. At the risk of sounding contrarian, I’m not a believer in new technology nor government legislation delivering the Holy Grail of wildland firefigher safety. Until robots can cut fireline and provide structure protection firefighters will be at risk because humans make mistakes. Based on findings in the Esperanza Fire fatality investigation, firefighters did know the location of the fire and the Division Supervisor did not need a UAV, GPS devise, or tricorder to stay informed on the location of crews. In the mean time, strengthening the effectiveness and understanding of the role of a “Lookout” in the LCES safety system does not require a Senate Bill. Some may recall Paul Gleason suggested formalized “Lookout” position when he initially introduced his landmark LCES concept. Should lookouts be some of the first trained/equipped with UAS technology?
    George Solverson
    Boise, ID

  2. Some years ago, as an IC, I was trying to hold a back firing operation. A couple of engines had got turned around in the green while running down spot fires. They were asking me to find them from the helicopter. All I could see from the chin bubble was smoke. Their voices got tighter and tighter as time went on and the head fire approached our line. They were able to find their way out with out my help. The back fire failed and the whole area burned over.
    The technology is available today that would have provided me their location. It’s not really that complicated or expensive. It wouldn’t be perfect folks would still need to take time to monitor it and maintain it to ensure it worked when you needed it. This legislation is at least a start in that direction.

  3. Another use for tracking fire resources would be to quickly confirm that everyone is out of an area where air tankers will be dropping retardant. It might be another way to save lives.

    1. Let’s not forget the reason you dropping retardant is that you are working the line and need the retardant to cool the area.
      Yes, doing the job is dangerous, at all times.

  4. The Bill would be a good start. The Bill does not address initial attack or Type III fires. Look at the deaths that occurred on the South Canyon and Yarnell Hill fires. Both of those had major loss of life during extended attack operations or before Type II or I Teams had full management responsibilities.

    1. Exactly, Esperanza was in initial attack phase as well. We need this for emerging and long duration incidents. Intel shops on units and at GACCs need more technology!

    2. I could be wrong, but what I am assuming is that activating real time mapping and issuing tracking equipment to firefighters working under a Type 1 IMT will be a first step. The tracking hardware could be part of the fire cache equipment system and would be on an automatic order along with the IMTs. But at best it would be used by personnel and rolling stock on day 3 or 4 of an incident, not initial attack. It would be impossible to equip ALL fire resources with tracking hardware within a year. The use of the systems on large fires for a year could help to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, then the following year, pull the trigger for much more widespread use, to include initial attack resources.

      These timelines are NOT what the Forest Service is accustomed to. They prefer to tip toe very slowly into any significant change. The agency slow-walked the Coast Guard HC-130H program and the congressionally mandated purchase of a new air tanker into oblivion. And changing the color of its fire engines and the shape of parachute canopies were painful experiences. But maybe Congress (not known for their tech savvy) can pull them kicking and screaming into the 21st Century (he said optimistically).


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