Infrared tech could help fight future wildfires

Planes with FLIR's infrared cameras have helped fight fires this season

A screen capture from the FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HDc shows the Eagle Creek Fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge in early September (FLIR Systems Inc.)
A screen capture from the FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HDc shows the Eagle Creek Fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge in early September (FLIR Systems Inc.)

WILSONVILLE, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Department of Forestry protects more than 16 million acres of forest and during this season’s wildlife season, the state received an enormous amount of help from FLIR Systems.

FLIR, which is based in Wilsonville, designs and manufactures technologies to enhance perception and awareness such as infrared systems.

Trees in the Columbia River Gorge burn during the Eagle Creek Fire. The image from FLIR shows the active burning spots in early September.
Trees in the Columbia River Gorge burn during the Eagle Creek Fire. The image from FLIR shows the active burning spots in early September.

On Thursday, FLIR and ODF invited KOIN 6 News onboard one of FLIR’s Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that is outfitted with the company’s latest technology, including the Star SAFIRE 380-HDc.

The technology is being used to help firefighters manage wildfires such as the Eagle Creek Fire, the Chetco Bar Fire and the Horse Prairie Fire.

ODF is in the process of researching and doing a cost-benefit analysis of whether technology like the FLIR system can be afforded and used in the state.

Teresa Harrison, who works for ODF, said this year’s fire season was particularly busy because of the wet winter and spring, which caused grass and other fire fuel to grow faster than in years past.

“Summer came on very quickly and so those grasses dried very quickly,” Harrison said.

That created extreme fire danger in some places.

The Eagle Creek Fire was caused by a 15-year-old boy playing with fireworks inside the Columbia River Gorge on September 2.

Complete coverage of the Eagle Creek Fire

Harris said ODF is looking into ways to obtain real-time data on fires that they are working. That’s where FLIR comes in. The company’s technology can be set up on an airplane or helicopter, depending on the state’s preference, should they commit to purchasing the equipment.

The state currently has an aircraft that could be equipped with the FLIR technology if a decision to move forward is made. The cost to purchase any technology, be it FLIR, or something else, has yet to be determined. However, ODF has had preliminary discussions on obtaining the technology. The state hopes to have a final decision made by fire season 2019.

Adam DeAngelis, the Marketing Director for FLIR’s Surveillance division, said the Star SAFIRE 380-HDc will allow incident commanders to not only see where fire lines are burning, but allow them to see where firefighters are on the ground, where homes and other property are and it can all be done through great distance, even though smoke.

“Smoke basically obscures everything,” DeAngelis said. “So from a command and control aspect it’s essential.”

The FLIR technology is also capable of enhanced GPS mapping. The FLIR flight officers can zoom in on a particular spot that is burning and will be given the exact pinpoint location so ground crews or water-dropping aircraft can knock down the flames.

“Being able to from the air see, where the fire is going and where it could potentially jump, that is definitely one of the most important aspects of it,” DeAngelis said.

ODF agrees and said during the Eagle Creek Fire, the FLIR system proved immensely reliable.

Crews are protecting Multnomah Falls from the Eagle Creek Fire, which grew to 32,000 acres Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (KOIN)
Crews are protecting the Multnomah Falls Lodge from the Eagle Creek Fire, which grew to 32,000 acres Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (KOIN)

“One highlight for me for the Eagle Creek (Fire) was to be able to zoom into the Multnomah Falls Lodge and we could see the Oregon State Fire Marshal crews surrounding that lodge and protecting that lodge,” Harrison said.

The FLIR technology can also be set up to transmit live images of what the plane and its equipment captures.

“The operations managers can watch their firefighters in action and make sure that they’re operating in a safe environments,” Harrison said.

The Eagle Creek Fire made its largest run on September 4, when the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said it spread west from Cascade Locks to the Dodson and Warrendale area. When that happened, all flight operations had to be grounded because of the dense smoke. But FLIR’s system worked around the smoke.

“These infrared cameras can see through smoke,” Harrison said.

FLIR touts its technology as giving fire commanders a “six sense” of a wildfire.

“Not only are you able to just detect that something’s there,” DeAngelis said. “Now you’re able to recognize and identify what that is.”