Colorado is fighting wildfires with military-grade technology

Both multimission aircraft fly to search for possible fires. Courtesy of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
Shahn Sederberg/CDOT Division of Aeronautics

Wildfires are a top concern in western Colorado, but infrared and geospatial technology are helping the state better prepare on the ground with a sharper look at the sky.

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

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

The program was the first in the nation like this.

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

Colorado has two such planes stationed at 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 navigate at altitudes above 20,000 feet.

“So far this year, we have found 81 new fires; 75 of them were within the state of Colorado,” Dikken said.

The planes are equipped with infrared and color sensors controlled by two Forest Fire Management personnel sensor operators from the Fire Prevention and Control Division and piloted by one pilot.

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The aircraft is integrated with a geospatial database that displays images and incident 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 that computer system, not only to manipulate cameras, but also to draw maps, create reports and send emails and all that kind of stuff,” Dikken said.

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

“Every day, as it was happening, we were flying over the fire,” he said. “With the camera, we would 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 should put their efforts.”

Operators working in the rear of the plane also have the ability to map close to where the lightning struck and check the area for fires that have not yet smoked.

“On board, they can open up the lightning map and really follow where the lightning struck and go look at those areas specifically,” said Ryan McCulley, deputy director of the Northwest District Fire Prevention and Control Division. “If a certain area got 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 go out, McCulley said. In the past, the state had to wait to detect smoke from planes, which could be unpredictable for suppressed fires in isolated areas.

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“People see smoke and call 911, it’s a way that still happens,” he said, “but historically, it would just be putting someone on a plane and looking for smoke.”

It is an asset to the state of Colorado with wide applications, Dikken said. Although it was purchased specifically for wildfires, it has many capabilities, whether it be search and rescue, flood management, or even landslide assessment.

“I think 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 likely to be long before they could go in and assess it. So it’s a tool, it’s available for all those things.”

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