Oregon firefighters use new tech to battle wildfires

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNN) – Firefighters in Oregon are now equipped with technology that lets them spot small fires, even at night. The idea is to find and extinguish the blazes before they become huge wildfires.

Last week, residents in the Columbia River Gorge got their first warning of the season. Gusty winds mixed with dry conditions served as a reminder of what can happen.

Neil Laugle is an Oregon Department of Forestry aviation manager. He said, “We are gearing up for an above-average fire season.”

Laugle explained that this year, fire crews have a new technology that can spot fires in the dark of night and through thick clouds of smoke. “The best way to describe is looking through a black and white TV now at night with the goggles on,” he said.

ODF aircraft has been fully outfitted with cameras and other night-vision systems to help crews across the state battle wildfires this season.

Laugle said, “With the new system now, they’ll pick those fires up whether they’re just a heat signature in a single tree, through the FLIR [forward-looking infrared camera] or they’re giving off a little flickering of light at night. We’re picking those up through the night vision goggles.”

The system generates images that are crucial in detecting fires.

Valuable information incident commanders, like Joe Hessel, can communicate to crews fighting fires sometimes blindly on the ground. “There’s a lot of mapping software that is on board,” Hessel said. “There’s a visible camera system that’s on board. And all of that technology is linked together to work and relay instantaneously real-time to somebody on the ground.”

In 2017, the Eagle Creek fire spread rapidly. At one point, it was considered the number one fire concern in the country. The military stepped in to assist with this system to help firefighters on the ground see where the fire was moving.

Hessle said, “Had they not picked up those fires with that infrared camera on board, you know, we could’ve had a lot larger fires on hand than we did. We were able to get to them quickly and, with one exception, catch them all at what we could call initial attack.”

Oregon firefighters are concerned by recent firefighters in the west, like fires in the Redding, California area. They could burn through towns and consume thousands of acres. They believe having this technology at their disposal will help prevent future devastation

The price tag for the equipment is about $650,000. Officials think it could save about a million dollars by making it easier to prevent large wildfires.

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