The Cessna Plane That Saves America

With California facing a dry fire season, officials are worried about the possibility of bad season

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    NEWSLETTERS

    David Parkinson via National Weather Service Data

    The wildfire fighting tool of the future, looks an awful like one of those small planes rock stars fill with booze and groupies.

    Sitting on the tarmac of Moffett Field, the small Cessna seemed the equivalent of dispatching a Bentley to knock down a forest fire. But the plane, manned by U.S. Forest Service pilots, has seen more of the Nation's fires than even Smokey himself. "We fly over the fires giving strategic information to the incident commanders on the ground," said U.S. Forest Service pilot Don Boyce.

    The Cessna is one of the Forest Service's two Utah-based planes which are dispatched to fires anywhere across the country.

    Their secret weapons are the sensors mounted to the bottom which use infrared technology to map fire scenes in the darkness, detecting thermal hotspots.

    The information is then transmitted to fire crews on the ground using cellular technology, similar to what keeps commercial passengers web surfing while cruising 15,000 thousand feet above the earth. "It's getting it down to them quicker," said Tom Zajkowski of the U.S. Forest Service. "It enables them to make better informed decisions and that in turn makes us safer."

    The technology was originally developed by NASA researchers for use in satellite imaging. But six years ago, the U.S. Forest Service began using it to map wildfires. Before the technology hit its stride, the pilots would routinely have to land and convey their observations to fire commanders in person.

    As the technology progressed, they would dump the maps onto flash drives and drop them to the ground in special tubes, using glow sticks as markers. "We can go and hit about four states in one night," said pilot Dan Johnson. "And multiple fires in those states."

    But this week, NASA turned over its latest version of the technology to the Forest Service. The new and improved sensors are able to detect fire both day and night, and transmit the results to a web based application on the ground. NASA engineers said it's finding uses for the technology beyond just firefighting.

    "We can do wildfire monitoring," said NASA researcher Vince Ambrosia, "we can do agricultural monitoring, we can look at crop disease and changes."

    With California facing a dry fire season, officials are worried about the possibility of large fires, like the 2008 Summit fire which raged through the Santa Cruz Mountains.

    If such a fire breaks out, look for a small Cessna skirting through the clouds, taking pictures hotter than any camera phone yielding rock star could ever muster.