Fighting fire with data, spacecraft, drones

Wildfires are fast-moving targets, so one of the most important weapons firefighting teams can have is timely, precise information about where the fire is, where it’s likely to spread and what’s in its path.

In the past couple of years, firefighters have gained a significant advantage: aircraft equipped with heat-detecting infrared sensors and special communication equipment now can relay to firefighting teams on the ground, in minutes, a fire’s precise location, as well as where new “hotspots” are cropping up, even before they burst into visible flame.

“When I was an incident commander, I would have killed for this kind of data,” said Russ Johnson, the director of public safety and homeland/national security for Esri, one of the world’s leading geographic information companies. In past decades he commanded operations to fight major wildfires, including the massive Yellowstone wildfires of 1988 which scorched about 1.2 million acres.

Monitoring wildfires with infrared sensors from aircraft isn’t new, but the level of detail and speed with which this data gets transmitted to firefighting teams has been revolutionized.

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