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"Our goal is to try to integrate new technologies into a profession that’s really steeped in tradition," says the director of the recently launched Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting.
“I’m one of those hardcore lab-coated scientists,” said Janice Coen, the lead wildfire researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
For about two decades, Coen has studied how wildland fires and weather interact. Weather, especially wind, can be a critical factor in determining how a wildfire moves. And, as heat from the fire rises, it can actually alter what’s happening meteorologically.
“The weather directs the fire, and the fire also creates its own weather,” Coen explained in a recent interview.
Predicting how this interplay between the flames and the air up above will affect a fire’s behavior can be extremely difficult, particularly in mountainous terrain, where airflows can move in complex and unexpected ways. Less understanding about how a fire will act can translate to more risk, notably for the firefighters who are on the ground battling a blaze.
But Coen’s research might be able to help.
A computer model she’s worked to develop has been able to show, with reasonable accuracy, not only how fast the leading edge of a fire is spreading, but also more fine-grained information, such as “when the fire would suddenly intensify and blow up, where it would split,” and when fire whirls, sometimes called fire tornadoes, might form.
“These were tools that haven’t been available before,” Coen said.
Bridging the Gap Between Researchers and Wildland Firefighters
The “lab-coated” scientific work that Coen is carrying out is just one example of the type of innovative research that staff members will begin looking at closely in the coming months at the recently launched Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting.
“Our goal is to try to integrate new technologies into a profession that’s really steeped in tradition,” the center’s director, Melissa Lineberger, said during a recent interview.
“We got feedback from a lot of firefighters that academics are doing a lot of good research but it’s never getting into the hands of the on-the-ground firefighter who needs that information,” she added. Lineberger said that initially the center would “play a translation role,” trying distill sometimes dense research into material that firefighters can easily understand and use.
A Colorado Senate bill that passed last year created the center. The same legislation authorized the state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control to acquire, or contract, wildland firefighting aircraft.
Earlier this year, the state selected Rifle-Garfield County Airport as a site for the center. The city of Rifle is located along Interstate 70, on Colorado’s Western Slope, the vast region west of the Continental Divide.
Still in its early stages, the Center for Excellence is charged with evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of tools and practices that have to do with aerial wildland firefighting, and sharing the findings with firefighters, students and anyone else who’s interested.
“What are the policy implications of implementing this new solution? How much is it going to cost us? How much is going to save us if we implement it? What does the data say?” These are some of the questions staff members will be trying to answer, Lineberger said.
Asked for an example of a technology, or practice, that might get examined early on, she pointed to nighttime aerial firefighting.
Flying aircraft at night to dump water on wildfires fell by the wayside with the U.S Forest Service in the 1980s. The agency came to believe the flights were expensive, and provided limited benefits. Risk was also an issue. In 1977, two helicopters collided in midair while working overnight to extinguish a blaze in California’s Angeles National Forest. One pilot died.
But in recent years, nighttime helicopter operations have resumed in California. “They’re having a lot of success,” said Lineberger. “We’re working on: How do we prove that that’s safe?”
The Center for Excellence will also be digging into topics that have less to do with actual flight, like contracting and project management.
Lineberger is currently involved in a “hiring frenzy,” trying to fill eight of nine staff positions. The team is slated to include experts in areas such as technology development, law and policy, fire economics, and an academic researcher. “I was approached by a firefighter who has an engineering background,” she said, “and that type of person is sort of what we’re looking for.”
A More Science-Based Approach
Coen’s weather research is especially relevant to the Center for Excellence because of a piece of legislation that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed in late May.
The act expands the scope of the center’s work to cover the implementation of a “science based” wildfire prediction and “decision support” system.
As described in the legislation, that system closely mirrors Coen’s work. The state doesn’t have a contract in place yet to begin using her computer model, but she said: “We hope to begin working on that soon, and have some sort of demonstration in place for next summer.”
But Coen also noted that, as it stands, there will have to be significant efforts around software development, and determining how firefighters would want to use the model before it finds its way into the field. “It’s a really disruptive technology and that’s why it’s kind of a challenge to integrate it into operations,” she said. “Making that possible for someone to drive who isn’t a Ph.D. meteorologist,” Coen added, “that’s the kind of transition we’re talking about.”
But she sees real value in making that transition happen.
“There are so many resources at stake, and lives at stake, and so much money is being invested in firefighting,” Coen said. “It just seems like a good opportunity, and time, to bring more sophisticated tools to particularly deal with some of these more complex situations."