Fire fighters battling blazes in the Southwest are relying on high-tech tools

GIS systems, GPS data and satellite, and Wi-Fi networks help fire managers plan strategy.

RATON, N.M. -- Intense physical labor has gone into fighting forest fires ravaging the Southwest this year, including the more-than-27,000-acre Track Fire straddling the New Mexico-Colorado border just north of this city.

Management of that effort relies on a variety of high-tech tools and satellite-fed computer systems, said Robert Cordts, planning chief for the multiagency Incident Management Team here.

Crews for this fire have come from multiple federal, state and local agencies -- including a shovel-wielding team from the Navajo Nation -- and Cordts said managers rely on a software package called Incident Suite, or I-Suite, developed in 2003 by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho in 2003, Cordts said. I-Suite is used by the Forest Service, the Interior Department , the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management , the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and forestry agencies in all 50 states.

I-Suite computes hours and pay for the fire crews, helps make daily assignments, and also tracks resources, such as fire trucks and supplies, said Cordts, a former firefighter who serves as lands and minerals planning section chief for the Forest Service in Albuquerque, N.M., when it's not fire season.

Although it's far smaller than the Wallow Fire, a monster that has consumed more than 500,000 acres of Arizona and New Mexico over the past three weeks, the Track Fire has required more than 800 personnel, 34 fire engines and attacks -- conducted last week -- by a DC 10 air tanker, the largest fire tanker in the world, which can drop 12,000 gallons of fire retardant in one pass.

To deploy these assets in the best way to fight the fire -- which last week caused the closure for four days of Interstate 25, the main north-south highway in the mountains west -- Cordts said he relies heavily on the services of an on-site weather forecaster working closely with a fire behavior analyst.

Jim Harrison, a meteorologist here on temporary assignment from the National Weather Service office in Las Vegas, said he looks at two key factors in his fire scene forecasts: humidity and wind. Low humidity can help feed a fire and sudden shifts of wind can endanger firefighters, so Harrison said he wants to produce the best site specific forecasts possible.

During the initial fight against the Track Fire, Harris said he relied on observations from instruments at the local airport as well as weather feeds from Pueblo, Colo. But the steep mountainous terrain here -- which can produce extreme wind shifts -- required him to fine-tune his forecasts, Harris said, and he asked the National Interagency Fire Center to send him two containerized and trailer-mounted Remote Automated Weather Stations, which can pinpoint winds at the 6-foot level.

Harris provides his forecasts to Galen Roesler, a Forest Service fire behavioral analyst, who also uses infrared imagery from daily flights by Forest Service aircraft to identify fire hot spots. Roesler said he combines the weather information and the type of fuels feeding the fire -- the kind of trees and vegetation that are burning, as gauged by aerial surveys and firefighters on the ground -- to help him fine-tune his fire predictions for the next day.

Roesler said the fire behavior information he develops helps on-scene fire managers plan their strategy and tactics, and more important, "keep firefighters safe."

J.J. Miller, a Forest Service geographical information system specialist from the Carson National Forest, N.M., said the information developed by Roesler, along with data from infrared imagery and collected by firefighters, is used to update digital and paper maps on a daily basis. Miller said he could not overemphasize the importance of the GPS data -- "walking the fire line" provides the most precise information, he said.

Miller said the daily GIS plot is then fed to three massive plotter printers, which produce paper maps for managers and individual firefighters. The GIS section is located in a semitrailer that also serves as the technology nerve center for the Incident Management Team here.

The trailer -- which houses multiple computer servers and a satellite connection that can download data at a rate of 5 megabytes per second and upload it at 2 megabytes per second -- is provided by a contractor Wx Firegraph of Truth or Consequences, N.M., headed by Kenneth Rogers. The trailer serves as a self-contained computer and communications center for an Incident Management Team with Wi-Fi networks connecting all the computers in a fire camp.

Cordts said Rogers supplies all the computers used by an Incident Management Team -- 30 here -- which make it easy to wipe out personnel data after the team leaves the site.

Cordts, who started out fighting fires on the line in the 1980s, said today's technology definitely makes his planning job easier. But in a caveat familiar to any computer users, he added, "if it works." So far on the now-90-percent contained Track Fire, it has.