NASA's space-age technology may help fight Calif. fires

Astronauts working side-by-side with firefighters?

Not exactly, but NASA, the nation's space agency, has formalized an agreement with California's state fire department in the hopes that space-age aerial reconnaissance technology may be soon be used more to battle the state's wildland fires.

Earlier this month, officials at NASA's Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area entered into a five-year agreement with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to develop NASA technology that could be used to help Cal Fire battle wildfires across the state.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the state wouldn't have to pay a cent for the partnership, which has solidified an informal relationship NASA and Cal Fire have had for years.

The hope is that now Cal Fire might have be able to directly shape the technology to match the needs of the seemingly ever more tinder-dry state, said Kevin Guerrero, Cal Fire's deputy chief of operations support.

Several years ago, NASA scientists designed an infrared and thermal sensor called the NASA Autonomous Modular Scanner (AMS). The scanner was installed on the Ikhana, NASA's unmanned drone airplane. The system also was installed on a manned B-200 King Air operated by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards.

The scanner can be used to provide fire crews with real-time wildfire imaging data, NASA officials said. It works by scanning a wildfire from the air. The data are processed autonomously onboard the aircraft, then relayed through a satellite communication system to disaster managers potentially anywhere in the world.

Guerrero said the system played a role in Northern California in the fiery summer of 2008. That June, a freak lightning storm spawned thousands of strikes, sparking hundreds of fires. They eventually burned 190,000 acres in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest alone, and nearly 1 million acres north of Sacramento.

That July, one of NASA's unmanned drones flew over the Butte County town of Paradise, Guerrero said. The drone was able to see through billowing smoke to a dangerous hot-spot flare up. The info was relayed to firefighters on the ground, who ordered the town's evacuation before a fire torched more than 50 homes.

"Their sensor was able to see it," Guerrero said.
Guerrero said though the drone proved effective, the Federal Aviation Administration tightly restricts drone flights over American soil.

Cal Fire also had to wait in line, because U.S. Forest Service officials coordinated the NASA flights, Guerrero said.

The hope is that NASA will work with Cal Fire teams to come up with ways to put the same technology in planes that have Cal Fire pilots. Perhaps even a private firm could use the technology, he said.
"The idea is to transfer their technology," Guerrero said.

(Ryan Sabalow reports for the Redding Record Searchlight in California.)
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