New South Wales fire mapping

Gold Mine Road Fire,
Gold Mine Road Fire, NSW RFS

The image above was distributed by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, showing a map of the Gold Mine Road Fire 17 km southwest of Towamba in the Yambulla State Forest. The map is part of the agency’s Common Operating Picture.

It was apparently obtained by infrared equipment that processed the data in a format we have not seen publicly in the United States. The black lines are most likely the path of the line scanner as the mirror rotated at thousands of RPM in a fixed wing aircraft. It’s interesting that the target discrimination marks (TDMs) only appear at the ends of each line, rather than at every heat source. The intensity of the heat is represented by a range of orange and yellow colors.

The U.S. Forest Service has been mapping fires with infrared equipment for at least four decades, but the folks down under also have very advanced IR systems.

Gold Mine Fire map NSWRFS
Map of the Gold Mine Fire as seen in the NSW RFS Common Operating Picture.


NASA to launch 200 satellites that will detect wildfires

CubeSat. NASA photo.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to launch a network of 200 small satellites that will detect wildfires within 15 minutes after a blaze grows to be at least 35 to 50 feet across. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a concept for a network of space-based sensors called FireSat in collaboration with Quadra Pi R2E. Within three minutes of detecting a fire from orbit, FireSat would notify emergency responders in the area of the fire.

Robert Staehle, lead designer of FireSat at JPL, and his team first presented the concept of FireSat in 2011 to the joint NASA/U.S. Forest Service Tactical Fire Remote Sensing Advisory Committee. They spent the subsequent years refining their understanding of fire monitoring needs and technological requirements.

“Such a system has only now become feasible at a reasonable cost, enabled by advances in commercial microelectronics that NASA, JPL and universities have tested in space via CubeSat experiments, and by software technology originally developed to give Mars rovers and Earth orbiters more autonomy in their science observations,” Staehle said.

This sounds like science fiction, but launches should begin in 2017 with a fully operational system of FireSat sensors in space by June of 2018.

CubeSats are 4 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches and weigh about 3 pounds. They are generally built from off the shelf components at a cost of thousands rather than millions of dollars. 

Firefighters making more progress on the Rocky Fire

(UPDATE at 7:21 a.m. PT, August 8, 2015)

The Rocky Fire east of Clearlake, California, was quiet again on Friday. The satellite did not detect any large heat sources on the blaze that CAL FIRE is calling 69,636 acres and 62 percent contained. Many areas have been repopulated but others are still under mandatory evacuation orders.

Almost 3,000 personnel are assigned to the fire, as well as 195 engines and 84 hand crews.


(UPDATE at 9:47 p.m. PT, August 5, 2015)

Firefighters on the Rocky Fire east of Clearlake, California had another successful day — for the second day in a row keeping the additional acres burned to less than 100. A mapping flight at 7 p.m. Wednesday determined that 37 acres were added, bringing the total to 68,924.

Today CAL FIRE updated the number of structures destroyed to 43 residences and 53 outbuildings.

Map Rocky Fire
Map of the Rocky Fire (in red) at 7 p.m. PT August 5, 2015. The green line was the perimeter the day before. (click to enlarge)

The mapping flight was earlier than usual, perhaps because one of the two USFS infrared (IR) line scanning aircraft is down for major planned maintenance, leaving a large workload for the single remaining IR ship operated by the US Forest Service. It’s an inopportune time for planned maintenance that sometimes must be done with a certain number of hours on the aircraft. But thankfully the ship carrying the load is a twin-engine jet-powered Cessna Citation that cruises at over 450 mph so it can visit many fires during its shift.

USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, a Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z USFS photo.

The jet’s daily grand tour of wildfires is usually at night because there is more of a difference between the temperatures of the ground and the fire, making it easier for the fire to be detected. Just one quick pass is all that’s required of a fire that’s up to several thousand acres — more are needed for very large blazes such as the complexes of scores of scattered fires burning in northern California on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that are scanned as one large “box”, requiring six passes on a recent night.

But back to the Rocky Fire. The weather conditions on Wednesday were warmer and drier than the day before, but they were not extreme; lets call them moderate, at least for California. And about the same is in the forecast for Thursday. Firefighters deserve kudos for limiting the spread to much, much less that we were seeing several days ago.

On the map of the fire above, only a few changes in the perimeter can be picked out (if you click on the map to enlarge it). Two are on the north side where the fire jumped across Highway 20. The other is on the southeast side.

The resources assigned to the fire include 3,483 personnel, 323 engines, 87 hand crews, 17 helicopters, and 63 dozers.


(The article below was originally published at 10:24 a.m. PT, August 5, 2015)

Rocky Fire
A firing operation on the Rocky Fire August 3, 2015. Photo by Stuart Palley used with permission.

On Tuesday firefighters got a temporary break from extreme weather and fire behavior on the Rocky Fire east of Clearlake, California. A small amount of rain was reported in some areas of the fire, however the Knoxville Creek weather station on the southeast side did not record any precipitation.

The fire perimeter is still virtually the same as was shown on the map we posted August 4.

There was very little additional growth of the Rocky Fire Tuesday. A total of 76 acres were added, which occurred on the north side where it spotted across Highway 20, and on the southeast side west of Highway 16. A mapping flight at 10 p.m. Tuesday updated the size to 68,886 acres.

CAL FIRE updated the number of structures destroyed to 39 residences and 52 outbuildings. They caution that the numbers may increase as damage assessment teams are able to access the burned areas.

Mandatory evacuations are still in effect for many areas, affecting about 13,000 residents. Other areas are under evacuation advisories.

The high temperature of 75 degrees Tuesday occurred at 10 a.m. and it actually dropped to 69 at 3 p.m. thanks to clouds that moved in. The relative humidity increased to 58 percent at 3 p.m. and then decreased as the sky cleared somewhat.

Conditions will change on Wednesday as the forecast predicts 89 degrees, 24 percent relative humidity, clear skies, and winds out of the east at 3 to 6 mph.

A thermal infrared camera attachment for smart phone

Seek Thermal Camera and a Motorola X smart phone. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A thermal infrared (IR) camera that attaches to a smart phone is now available that could be useful for firefighters. The device, smaller than your thumb, connects to the USB or lightning plug on certain newer models of cell phones.

Everything (animals, humans, objects, water, etc.) emits infrared waves based on its temperature. An IR thermal camera measures these waves, which are invisible to human (or animal) eyes, and converts them into images.

We bought the new $250 Seek Thermal infrared camera to evaluate its effectiveness in helping wildland firefighters find lingering smoldering areas during the mopup stage of fire suppression. Under trees, organic material or duff can continue burning below the surface for days, weeks, or months and does not always produce smoke that can tip off a firefighter that the area needs attention. A still burning area that is missed can sometimes flare up and cause problems, possibly throwing burning embers across the fire line resulting in a slopover or spot fire with the potential to do serious damage.

Thermal cameras have traditionally been very expensive, which limited them to military and governmental applications. In the last ten years new, lower cost ($3,000-­‐$5000+) industrial thermal cameras have emerged. They have been primarily used by police, firefighters, and contractors. Structural firefighters have used them to detect fires that are behind walls or ceilings. IR cameras can’t see through objects, but they can detect a wall, for example, that has been warmed by hidden combustion. A fire that is smoldering in deep duff in a wildfire will heat the surface of the ground, making it visible to an IR device.

Some of the wildland firefighters that have been around for a while might remember the thermal IR detector that looked like a flashlight. It had no viewing screen, but simply emitted a tone when heat was detected. I believe the pitch changed as the temperature increased. I don’t know if those are still being used. Does anyone remember what the cost of those was?

The Seek Thermal infrared camera can view long wave infrared (7.2 to 13 microns), has a resolution of 206 x 156 pixels, a 36-degree field of view, can detect temperatures between -40F (-40C) and +626F (+330C), and weighs 0.5 ounce.

At $200 the Seek Thermal infrared camera is far less expensive than other thermal infrared cameras. For example, FLIR makes many models of IR cameras. Their E4 has a resolution of 80 x 60 and sells for $995 at Amazon. The FLIR E5 with 120 x 90 resolution will set you back almost $1,500. The company recently developed the FLIR ONE, which like the Seek Thermal works with a smart phone, but is a much larger case-type design which fits entirely around the phone. It sells for $349, has a resolution of 80 x 60, and can only detect temperatures of 0 to 100C. The FLIR ONE will work with an iPhone with a lightning connector; there is no Android model.

The Seek Thermal is available in two versions: Android and IPhone. The Apple model is compatible with the iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6, and 6+ running iOS7 or iOS 8. The Android version will work with devices having microUSB connectors running Android version 4.3.1 (Jelly Bean) or later that support USB Host Mode (also called USB On The Go or OTG). The company says it has been tested extensively with the Galaxy S4 and S5 and the Moto G and X phones.

To use it, download the Seek Thermal app from the Apple app store or the Android Google Play store. I tested it on a Motorola X running Android 4.4.4. Helpfully, there were several prescribed fires being managed in Wind Cave National Park where I was able to find realistic conditions that wildland firefighters might run across.

 Cold Brook prescribed fire
This photo of Unit #3 of the Cold Brook prescribed fire was taken four days after the IR image below, from approximately the same location. Unlike the other pairs of images this photo was taken with a different camera at a different time than the pairs of Seek Thermal IR/smart phone combination photos farther down.
thermal IR image of prescribed fire.
An IR image of approximately the same area as the previous photo. This was taken October 23, 2014 with the Seek Thermal IR camera shortly after some of the area in the image had been ignited on the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park.

The IR image above was taken about 800 feet from the prescribed fire.

The IR camera was set to display the maximum and minimum temperatures detected. Interestingly, the minimum is in the area of the sky, showing -2 F. The maximum is displayed as 189 F.

The IR camera can be set to show the following items on the image:

  • Temperature in the middle of the image; (temperatures in Fahrenheit, Kelvin, or Celsius);
  • Maximum and minimum temperatures anywhere in the image;
  • Only areas that have a temperature within the min/max range that you set;
  • No temperatures displayed;
  • Lat/long;
  • Date and time;
  • Options for several different “color pallets” to represent temperatures;
  • A  watermark for Seek Thermal, which by default is turned on, unfortunately. But, it’s easy to turn off after cruising through the menus.

In addition, you can choose to display on the screen both the IR image and a true color “normal” image taken by your phone’s camera. You can drag a slider across to emphasize either.

You can take photos, of course, with the device. If you have the option selected for both regular and IR images, it will take and save two photos. If you have the temperatures displayed, they will also appear on the regular non-IR images.

Videos are also possible, as you can see below, in this two-second thermal infrared video of firefighters near a small area of burning grass on the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 23, 2014. The firefighters were from the Alpine Hotshots, preparing to ignite the prescribed fire.

More examples of images are below, showing pairs of  normal photos followed by the IR version of the same area.

IR Cold Brook prescribed fire
Note the tree’s shadow, which had been shielded from the sun, and compare it to the same area in the IR version below. The photographer’s shadow on the lower-right had only been present for seconds, and had not yet affected the temperature of the ground.
IR Cold Brook prescribed fire
IR version of the previous image. There was no visible smoke in this area. The image was taken at 3:02 p.m. MDT on a cloudless day. The air temperature, I believe, was in the 60s, but the sun heated many objects to around 100 F.  The only area in this image that was still burning was the spot near the displayed temperature of +194 F.

Continue reading “A thermal infrared camera attachment for smart phone”

Gazette articles about firefighting technology in Colorado

Ryan Maye Handy, who has written for Wildfire Today, has crafted three articles for the Colorado Springs Gazette about advances in wildfire management technology that the state of Colorado is adopting. One is about the PC-12 fixed wing aircraft (which we have covered at Fire Aviation) that the state is purchasing. Another focuses on the inability to find, for many hours, the reported smoke that later developed into the disastrous Waldo Canyon fire that killed two people and destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs. The PC-12s, or any aircraft for that matter, probably could have detected the smoke and facilitated a much quicker initial attack on the fire.

The third article is about mapping fires with thermal sensors, and quotes Phil Riggan, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist and thermal imaging pioneer based in Riverside, California. Below is an excerpt:

…Since 2001, Riggan has been part of the push to modernize firefighting by mixing on-the-ground firefighting with thermal images of wildfires. While the Forest Service uses a NIROPS flight, short for National Infrared Operations, to make passes over large fires once a day, Riggan advocates for real-time maps.

“If you are on one side of the fire, you don’t really know what’s going on on the other,” he said. “There’s just a lot of confusion that goes on. It’s really important that we try to move into a more modern stance here on fire information.”

Riggan, who has worked for years on a thermal imaging product called FireImager for the Forest Service, is not alone in his thinking. Last week, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control signed contracts for two aircraft designed to capture thermal images of fires and upload them immediately into a statewide computer system that can feed to firefighters’ smartphones or tablets.