Firefighters working on the Grizzly Creek Fire that sparked over four weeks ago in Glenwood Canyon have been using new technology to help them. This includes everything from drones that drop small plastic spheres known as Dragon Eggs that contain potassium permanganate for burn operations to mapping software that allows aircraft to superimpose infrared footage with topographical maps to more precisely detect the fire perimeter and new burn activity.
The fire, which is now 91% contained, proved challenging for firefighters because of the rugged terrain, the number of homes and valuable structures like the Shoshone Power Plant nearby and the hot, dry weather.
Brad Schmidt is the wildland fire projects manager with the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting. This research and development office at the Colorado State Fire Agency is in charge of several new technology projects to assist the more than 300 personnel currently working on the fire.
The U.S. Forest Service approved Schmidt and his team when the fire started to deploy a pilot project that uses smartphones with a built-in firefighter tracking app called the “Team Awareness Kit.” The app provides a fire map that’s generated every 12-to-24-hours by mapping specialists and it displays the current locations of firefighters.
“What we're doing is really just trying to improve the way that firefighting takes place now,” Schmidt said. “We're not developing a silver bullet that suddenly makes it easy.”
He emphasized the idea is to complement already existing walkie talkie and voice radio communication technology and give crews on the ground a more accurate picture of their surroundings.
When the Red Canyon fire broke out south of the Grizzly Creek Fire a few weeks ago, Schmidt said firefighters who were further away reported being able to navigate their way to the scene quickly by using the app. They looked for a growing cluster of dots, each dot represented a team member that had already arrived at the site.
“Saving lives and improving firefighter safety is a huge part of this,” Schmidt said. “You can imagine at night — being able to know what’s going on, where all the other resources are, where the fire is — just gets that much harder.”
Schmidt said the Team Awareness Kit was originally developed in 2010 by the U.S. Airforce.
“It was intended to be Google Maps for soldiers,” he said. “They were able to map a battlefield and call in airstrikes with this app.”
Since then, the military has licensed the technology for first responders to use for free. Schmidt said they’re still in the pilot phase and are adapting the app to meet firefighters’ needs. This includes being able to operate on low battery power since crews don’t always have access to charging stations.
“We’re making observations and getting feedback from folks on the ground,” Schmidt said. “Eventually we’ll get together with all the other agencies that collaborate on managing fire and present what we’ve learned and hopefully be able to make a broader impact across the country.”
Schmidt said the app is one of several new technologies his team has deployed during the Grizzly Creek Fire, including solar-powered cameras installed around Glenwood Canyon that give real-time footage of the fire. Remote satellite dishes also provide WiFi hotspots to firefighters so they can download incident maps and fire perimeter data.
As of Tuesday, Sept. 8, the fire remained at 32,464 acres for the 9th straight day.