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A year after East Troublesome, Colorado races to roll out new firefighting tech

 The state used advanced cameras aboard a Pilatus PC-12 to detect at least 206 fires last summer. New technology being tested allows crews aboard the aircraft to better communicate with firefighters on the ground when they are fighting wildfires.
Scott Franz
The state used advanced cameras aboard a Pilatus PC-12 to detect at least 206 fires last summer. New technology being tested allows crews aboard the aircraft to better communicate with firefighters on the ground when they are fighting wildfires.

Sitting in front of a large computer monitor in the back of a Pilatus PC-12 airplane parked at the Centennial Airport, firefighter Adam Hanson says his work feels more important this year than it ever has before.

He flies in this plane alongside a small crew armed with an infrared camera that can detect an unattended campfire from 25 miles away.

And this year, the plane and its camera have detected at least 206 fires no human could see.

“Last year’s record fire season, especially, makes it very clear that this program and what we do when used appropriately, is incredibly helpful,” Hanson says as he demonstrates how the infrared camera in the belly of the aircraft can pan and zoom.

Bruce Dikken, who manages the state’s fleet of firefighting aircraft, says dozens of fires could have become bigger ones last summer had the camera not detected them shortly after they started.

Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

Many are caused by lighting strikes in very remote areas.

A year after the East Troublesome Fire advanced with unprecedented fury and became one of the state’s biggest and most destructive blazes, the state’s firefighters say there is more pressure to detect and extinguish fires before they grow.

“This program probably costs about $3 million a year. And then the aircraft probably cost about $4 million each back in 2014,” Dikken says. “But really, that’s a small cost compared to, you know, hundreds of homes burning down potentially.”

And Dikken says the state has been improving the aerial reconnaissance program since it started seven years ago.

"We can create a fire perimeter, draw a line around the edge of it, and then we can send that out to anybody that has access to the internet so they know where that fire's at right now, including having pictures and video of the fire activity so they know what to expect," he says.

But even with two of these infrared cameras monitoring the landscape around the entire state, blazes like the East Troublesome and the Cameron Peak fires convinced lawmakers this year they needed more tools to join the fight.

Looking to the skies

The most immediate step the state took in response to Colorado’s record fire season last year was ordering a $24 million aircraft called a Firehawk.

It’s a Sikorsky, military-grade helicopter modified to quickly drop water on approaching flames.

They’ve been credited with helping to save the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 2019.

And California Gov. Gavin Newsom says they will become a bigger part of his state’s fleet.

“These replace the old 1970s Huey Helicopters. These (Firehawks) are state of the art,” Newsom said in May. “These fly much faster, they allow for much suppression, and they are lot more safe.”

Colorado’s first Firehawk is currently being built in a hangar in Englewood and will take to the skies next year.

In the meantime, engineers in Colorado have been busy this summer testing and developing a brand-new technology they say is starting to revolutionize how firefighters battle wildfires down on the ground.

Adapting battlefield tech

Brad Schmidt starts a program on his laptop at the Centennial Airport and small dots start rapidly moving around a map.

Schmidt helps develop firefighting technology at his office in Rifle with the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting.

He’s demonstrating the TAK app, a smartphone program that allows firefighters to see the location of their colleagues, fire engines and even aircraft in real-time.

“They've never had this type of real-time information before, and some of them have been working in fire for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “Typically, they'll get one map of the fire every 24 hours, and a lot of cases it literally is a paper map of the fire.”

The smartphone app was originally developed by the military to give soldiers a better idea of what was happening on the battlefield.

And Schmidt says this new digital platform brings lots of benefits to firefighters.

“You're out in the woods. You might not know at a fork in the road which way to go,” he said. “And rather than having to talk on a voice radio for a couple of minutes to figure out which direction, you could just look at your phone and see exactly where your boss is that that needs you to come down and meet with them.”

Schmidt says he tested the technology this year on the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County near Steamboat Springs, as well as a large blaze in California.

“And the supervising firefighters out on the fire line could see where the fire had grown to, and they actually made a decision to directly attack the fire rather than retreating and executing a large burnout operation,” he said. “And that strategy was successful and actually kept the fire several thousand acres smaller than it otherwise would have been.”

But other parts of the state’s response since the East Troublesome Fire are not making as much headway.

A venting session

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse arrived at a research lab in Fort Collins last month to talk to scientists about how lawmakers could improve fire management.

They took an expedited tour of research labs and peered through microscopes at pine beetles.

Then they sat at the head of a table with more than a dozen scientists and firefighters for a roundtable discussion.

But it quickly turned into a venting session about the obstacles communities are facing even after last year’s record wildfire season.

Garry Briese, who leads the state’s association of fire chiefs, complained about how expensive it was to clear vegetation from his wooded neighborhood south of Castle Rock.

He said it was difficult to convince several homeowners to participate in the project until the neighborhood could secure grant funding.

“We spent $1 million on 250 homes,” he said. “And it's nice to see (it) looks completely different, but we've already seen the regrowth and we're going to see now the homeowners are gonna have to spend money themselves.”

Lori Hodges, who leads the emergency management office in Larimer County, says federal money has been flowing in for fire mitigation projects, but she can’t use it.

“Because there's too many restrictions on it,” she said, “and most of those restrictions are based on which lands can you use, what can you do on wetlands? And then if you can't get those dollars to agree in different pots, you can't get anything done.”

And Esther Vincent, the director of environmental services at Northern Water in Berthoud, said the state still has not gotten nearly enough money to repair the water damage from the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires.

“So we're kind of on pins and needles trying to figure out, well, where where's the next wave of funding going to come from?” she said.

There were also complaints about how Colorado’s mitigation efforts in recent years look like a “shotgun” approach that leaves many gaps despite millions of dollars of investments.

Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

At the end of the hourlong discussion, Sen. Hickenlooper was asked what he thought the most important thing he could do in Washington before the next fire season.

“There isn't very much government can do, right?” he said. “We jump up and down to wave our arms and say ‘get rid of your shrubbery’… We scream and yell. We spent millions of dollars on average (on mitigation). And yet your heart breaks when you go out and look at one of these fires afterwards and you hear the stories from these families. And at that point, there's not much you can just do.”

“The same thing with COVID,” Hickenlooper continued. “So many people now don't want to get vaccines. I'm not trying to start a fight around the table, but you know, it's a free country and we allow people a tremendous amount of freedom, which means that in a sense, they have to take responsibility.”

Meanwhile, the state’s firefighting technology center continues to test other new methods of stopping fires from getting out of control.

The prototypes include a self-driving, all-terrain vehicle that could potentially deliver supplies to firefighters more quickly. There are also new drones and robots being tested that could replace firefighters at dangerous scenes. But engineers in Colorado say those are still several years from mass production.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.