One of the two Forest Service infrared mapping aircraft has not been successfully used since November, 2018

The agency says the aircraft has an avionics problem

US Forest Service infrared aircraft fire mapping
The two USFS aircraft equipped with infrared sensors used to map vegetation fires. USFS graphic.

The U.S. Forest Service owns two twin-engine aircraft equipped with infrared (IR) sensing technology that can accurately map wildfires, even at night and through smoke. This information is critical for firefighters to have when the exact extent of a fire is not known due to darkness, smoke, size of the fire, rapid spread, or complex terrain. IR mapping aircraft can also be used to detect new fires started by lightning when they are very small.

One of the two USFS aircraft, a Beechcraft 200 Super King Air (N149Z), has been busy this year providing intelligence and situational awareness for firefighters. But the other, a jet-powered Cessna Citation Bravo (N144Z), has not successfully mapped a fire since November 16, 2018 when it flew the Camp and Woolsey Fires in California.

I asked Stanton Florea, a Forest Service Fire Communications Specialist, why the jet has not been used in more than a year.

“[It] has not operated since an avionics issue was detected during a test flight in June of 2019,” Mr. Florea said. “The issue made the aircraft unsafe to operate on wildland fire missions. Efforts to resolve the avionics issue have not been successful.”

One advantage the Citation has over the King Air is faster cruising speed, 464 mph vs. 356 mph. This enables it to more quickly move from fire to fire during the course of a nightly mission, producing more maps for firefighters. Depending on the size of fires and their locations, a fast IR mapping aircraft might cover five or even ten fires in one mission.

To fill in the gap created by an avionics problem, the Forest Service is going to the private sector.

Mr. Florea said the agency has Call When Needed Contracts with four companies for IR mapping. Their home bases are shown in parenthesis:

They also have an Exclusive Use Contract with Tenax Aerospace, with corporate headquarters in Madison, Mississippi, for two IR planes, one of which is operational now, with the other to be available later in August.

These five companies, judging from their websites, range in size from Hood Tech Aero which features a small Cubcrafters plane, to Tenax which “focuses on special mission aviation programs critical to national security and the public interest including, but not limited to: aerial fire suppression, aerial intelligence gathering, and airborne data acquisition.” Tenax has also operated at least one CL-415 scooping air tanker, T-260.

In recent weeks I have seen fire maps created from Courtney Aviation data. I of course can’t judge the accuracy, but after being processed by agency Infrared Interpreters assigned to the fires, they look very similar to those generated from USFS aircraft data, with about the same amount of detail.

Infrared video of helicopters attacking fire in New South Wales

infrared video helicopter dropping water fire
Screenshot from the infrared video showing a helicopter dropping water on a fire in New South Wales.

This infrared video shows the effects of helicopters dropping water on a fire at Backwater in New South Wales, Australia. In the video colder objects, such as water, show up black or darker than warmer objects.

Aviation contractor helped map bushfires during Queensland fire siege

Two aircraft conducted 40 missions with infrared line-scanning equipment

Infrared wildfire mapping aircraftQueensland does not normally experience scores of large bushfires burning simultaneously, especially during what is supposed to be their wet season. During their recent fire siege the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) brought in many resources from New South Wales, Victoria, and other areas including personnel and large air tankers. They also used two contracted intelligence gathering aircraft, a Learjet and Kingair from Air Affairs Australia, which were outfitted with infrared line scanners to detect new fires and map existing blazes.

The imagery delivered during both day and night-time flight operations provided imaging of the ground, defining active fire and burnt terrain through dense smoke.

Infrared wildfire mapping aircraft

A total of 40 flight missions were flown, delivering a total of 192 detailed fire images. Through transmission of image data from the aircraft via satellite, the imagery was delivered to the QFES State Operations Centre for near real-time utilization in Geographic Information Systems. The data was then made available through the QFES state-wide emergency mapping system for immediate regional usage.

Infrared wildfire mapping aircraft
The white lines represent the paths of two infrared mapping aircraft during the bushfire siege in Queensland, Australia. All three images are from Air Affairs Australia.

Convection columns and cracked air tanker windshields

Here is an excerpt from an article published this morning at Wildfire Today about the Delta Fire north of Redding, California.

“…There was no overnight mapping by a fixed wing aircraft Thursday night. One of the two U.S. Forest Service infrared scanning planes was down with mechanical difficulties, which could be the reason for the “unable to fill”. It was smoky over the fire during the night but that usually does not prevent imaging the fire, unlike clouds which prevent the infrared light from reaching the sensor on the aircraft. The ability to “see” through smoke is one of the primary attributes of infrared sensing technology. However an intense convection column containing smoke, ash, and burning embers can be confused with heat on the ground.

“During the large vegetation fires in southern California in 2003 some of the convection columns were so powerful that the windshields on six air tankers were cracked by chunks of debris that were being hurled into the air (page D-6 in 2003 California Governor’s Blue Ribbon Report; huge 20 Mb file). One pilot saw a four by eight sheet of plywood sail past at 1,500 feet.”

Do any of our readers who are pilots have similar experiences?

Military RC-26 reconnaissance aircraft deployed to assist firefighters

Posted on Categories Fixed wingTags ,

The aircraft can detect new fires, map them, and stream real time video


Above: An example of an RC-26, in this case with the Texas Air National Guard. ANG photo.

(Originally published at 9:13 a.m. PDT July 30, 2018)

For at least the third time in recent years a manned military fixed wing aircraft is helping the firefighting agencies collect real time intelligence about ongoing wildfires. An RC-26 aircraft with Distributed Real-Time Infrared capability and support personnel from the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing have been deployed to Spokane, Washington in support of wildland fire operations in the West.

In 2017 when one of the RC-26’s was activated, its objective was to perform up to three different types of missions using its array of infrared and video sensors.

  • Detect new fires, especially following lightning events. One of the goals is to find small fires early so they can be attacked before growing large.
  • Map existing fires, usually at night, to determine the perimeter and intensity.
  • Downlink live video to inform fire managers about the current status, location, and behavior of the fire. The Air Force calls that process “DRTI”, Distributed Real-Time Infrared.

Here is  a portion of what we wrote last year when one of the RC-26’s was deployed:

Lt. Col. Jeremy Higgens, one of the pilots on the aircraft that requires a three-person crew, told us today that so far on this assignment they have been mapping and detecting fires, but have not yet been asked to stream any live video like they did when on a similar assignment in 2016. On the ground two displays are available, the video from the sensors and another with a map showing the location of the aircraft or the sensors’ target.

The plane is expected to work the fires seven days a week, so they brought a total of five people to provide daily service.

Lt. Col. Higgens said the infrared sensors can detect a fire that is 50 to 80 miles away. They have been flying one to two sorties a day each lasting for three to five hours. Their mapping data is sent to Geographic Information System (GIS) operators in Portland or Boise who analyze it and produce maps.

Oregon has 27 exclusive use aircraft on firefighting contracts this year

The Oregon Department of Forestry will have a greater emphasis this year on infrared mapping and the use of drones, and, has the 747 on a CWN contract.

Whitewater Fire

Above: Whitewater Fire, 6 miles east of Idanha, Oregon. August 19, 2017. Inciweb photo.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

In 2017 contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

Using infrared to detect gaps in retardant coverage

One of Colorado’s Multi-Mission Aircraft shot this infrared video of an air tanker making a drop on the 500-acre Hunter Fire southwest of Meeker, Colorado about five days ago. Heat from the fire shows up as white and water or retardant drops are dark grey or black. It appears that the air tanker is attempting to fill in a gap in a retardant line, but as you can see, incomplete coverage remains.

The air tanker is very hard to see — it’s just a little dot, but it becomes obvious when the retardant is released. This shows the value of an air attack ship having infrared capabilities; the crew can direct aircraft to fill in gaps in retardant lines, in addition to mapping the fire perimeter.

Single Engine Air Tankers are a very important tool in the firefighter’s tool box, but this also shows the value of large and very large air tankers. A much longer drop means fewer gaps to worry about.

Australian company maps fires down under

infrared fire map

Above: An example of a fire map produced by the Air Affairs infrared mapping system.

A company with an unusual name, “Air Affairs”, has been mapping wildfires (or bush fires) in Australia since 1994. Not unlike the systems the U.S. Forest Service has been using since at least the 1970s, Air Affairs uses infrared line scanners to detect heat produced by the fires, even if they are apparently obscured by smoke.

That heat is then plotted on a georectified map and transmitted via a satellite link directly from the aircraft in a format compatible with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) used by the state fire authorities. The image data requires no further processing by fire personnel and is available for immediate use.

B200t line scanner
An Air Affairs Beechcraft B200T purpose modified for the infrared line scanner system.

Air Affairs has two line scanners. One is permanently mounted in the belly of a Beechcraft B200T. The other is a pod which can be attached to one of the company’s Learjets.

Interestingly, the USFS has two similar aircraft with line scanners — a Citation jet and a King Air.

lear jet line scanner
An Air Affairs Learjet outfitted with a customized pod containing infrared line scanning equipment.