MIDDLETOWN, Calif. – Military technology used to track terrorists and insurgents while keeping American troops safe is making its way to the blazing battlefields of wildfires.
From heat-seeing cameras to drones to night-vision goggles and satellite trackers pinpointing firefighters' exact locations, military technology is helping fire managers better deploy air tankers above, and fire crews on the ground.
"For years this technology was available to the armed forces and now it's coming to us," said Capt. Fernando Herrera, a spokesman for the California state fire agency, CalFire.
California's fire season has already set records, and the rapid advance of the largest illustrate what's at stake for firefighters in the state. Last month's Valley Fire resulted in four deaths and destroyed 1,958 structures in three Northern California counties. Combined with a second fire southeast of Sacramento, Calif., claims could reach $1.1 billion, catastrophe insurer Impact said last week. Southern California has yet to reach peak wildfire conditions.
Among the biggest weapons are special cameras that can "see" fire from 10 miles away, mounted on either military or civilian aircraft. The state of Colorado was so impressed by the military imaging systems of National Guard aviators that legislators last year spent $12 million to buy two civilian airplanes equipped with similar sensor pods. The planes can stream real-time images to firefighters' smartphones.
Compared to the $500 million in losses that a destructive wildfire can cost, Colorado considers the planes a bargain, "pocket change," in the words of Melissa Lineberger, the director of Colorado's Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. Lineberger said Colorado could only afford the camera systems because the military invested so much money developing them first.
"The Department of Defense tends to have a lot more resources than the firefighting community," she said.
Now Colorado is sharing those resources, sending the two special planes to help detect wildfires in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and New Mexico earlier this summer, mapping dozens of previously unknown fires caused by lightning in remote areas, and allowing fire managers to decide which fires to deploy their scarce resources to.
Colorado is also experimenting with tracking systems allowing fire managers to see the location of every firefighter. As with the fog of war, wildland firefighters can easily get separated from their counterparts, and most don't carry radios. The California National Guard, which has access to the same kinds of trackers, sends them out with its soldiers when they deploy to help fight wildfires, said Maj. Adam Rix.
The CalGuard soldiers are accustomed to using the satellite-based trackers, so they commonly carry them, Rix said, but the devices can also be sent out with civilian firefighters or even attached to firetrucks: "Anything we want to track, we can track."
CalGuard regularly sends soldiers, helicopters and airplanes to assist in firefighting efforts in California, where an historic drought contributed to the devastating fire season. CalGuard pilots also use night-vision goggles when flying at night, when civilian aircraft might be grounded, and in 2013 used their Reaper drone to stream back images of the fast-moving Rim Fire near Yosemite.
"We try to use our unique capabilities to fill the gaps," Rix said.