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Space Age: Firefighting

Remote communication technology refined in the Vietnam War is being deployed in the battle to protect British Columbia's forests from wildfires.

By Richard Turtle
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Information from isolated weather stations is bounced from meteor trails 100 km in the atmosphere and relayed as it happens to Ministry of Forests fire centres. There, in the command centres, it joins a plethora of computerized data devoted to fire risk analysis, preparedness and resource allocation.

The Prince George Forest Region has 17 of its 47 weather stations using meteor burst technology. The region is vast - comprising about a quarter of the province and 31.8 million hectares - with a corresponding diversity of topography. "Communication is everything," states Chris Duffy, initial attack co-ordinator for the Prince George Region Fire Centre. The faster and more precise the better for effective forest fire control and safety of people in the front lines of combat. Last year, the region spent $37 million fighting 1,343 fires that consumed 22,048 hectares. That was a 'good' year. The average number of fires during the region's fire season is 3,000 with 56,831 hectares scorched.

Duffy reckons thousands of meteor trails are cruising the atmosphere at any given time, making them predictable and reliable. The meteor burst weather stations beam out pulses of high-energy signals to intercept the electrically charged meteor trails. "Suppose we prompt the station at Toad River (in northeastern BC) we would receive the station number, date, time, temperature and precipitation in the last 24 hours. Seconds later it could send information on relative humidity and wind direction and then subsequent messages," explains Duffy. The information bounces off meteor trails to a receiving station that has the ability to re-configure all the information received into one message and relay it to the fire centre. The technology permits closer tracking of fire weather trends.

Mobile satellite phone systems are proving themselves useful communication tools. There are many pockets in mountains and remote areas of northern BC where conventional communication methods don't work or are erratic. The satellite phone units guarantee field personnel communication when they need it. They comprise azimuthal and satellite information that instruct the user where to 'aim' the unit for communication. A direct-dial telephone does the rest. Last year, the units were the size of the largest camera case and weighed 15 kg, relates Duffy. The speed and sophistication of technological change means crews in the woods this forest fire season will be toting units the size and weight of a lap-top computer.

BC uses a resource tracking system to monitor equipment and personnel movements, especially during times of high hazard and fire-fighting activity. The system allows communication between aircraft and some vehicles to improve dispatch. The system is two-way, allowing field units to access computers for updated fire information.

The fire centres are the nerve centres in the war against wildfires. Computer screens show weather information and data from the lightning detection system. Officers can zero in on an individual lightning strike if required. Lightning causes 50 per cent of wildfires; people are responsible for the balance. Maps of each region can be overlaid with a wealth of information and detail. Communities, roads, rivers and parks can define how a fire is to be fought or how a hazard can best be monitored.

Close communication with the forest industry is essential, says Duffy. Knowing who's working where and what equipment is available are all integral parts of fire-fighting strategy. Information collected and interpreted in the fire centres dictates where and which resources can best be used to fight a fire, or positioned to move when one occurs. Provincial resources like aircraft, trained 20-person crews for large fires and three-people initial attack rappel crews for smaller ones are on the alert and move all summer and well into fall.

Fire-fighting aircraft are becoming faster and more effective. The forests ministry is using aircraft like DC-6s and Fire Cats less in favour of Electras and 802 air tankers. The Electra L-188s are about 30 per cent faster than Fire Cats and can deliver 11,365 litres of retardent or water in a continuous flow, rather than a truncated one, from a compartmentalized tanker. The 802s are suitable for smaller fires and have a payload of 3,025 litres. Duffy anticipates adding a Hercules tanker to the fleet in 1998. The aircraft can transport about 18,927 litres of retardent, has a long range and flies high speeds. It has short take-off and landing advantages.

The forest service has stationed in Prince George a new 1,893-litre compressed air foam pump truck. Adding foam allows water to soak into dry fuels. It's available for attacking fires with a road access.

Not everything mobilized in the annual fight against forest fires is new and sophisticated. About 50 per cent of fires are caused by people; four of six major fires in the Prince George region last year were people-caused. Public education and training programs continue in a long-term effort to stop these fires from happening in the first place. And in a throwback to simpler times, lookout towers still play a role in early fire detection. You can achieve more coverage with patrol planes but the towers are still useful in high-use corridors, explains Duffy. Most of the high-elevation lookouts are manned only in times of high hazard rating.

Fighting forest fires and mopping up on the ground is an exhausting and dirty business where wielding unsophisticated hand tools like mattocks and polaskis is still 'de rigeur'. Another ingredient in the battle plan is far removed from utilizing meteor trails in the heavens.

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