Oregon Department of Forestry uses specialty aircraft to detect fires after thunderstorms

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SALEM, Ore. – With over 14,000 lightning strikes recorded as thunderstorms swept across Oregon between August 4 and 12, firefighters suppressed 88 lightning fires on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. As lightning fires often start in remote areas, ODF used specialty aircraft to aid in early detection efforts.

After successful efforts in Oregon’s severe 2015 fire season, ODF again contracted with Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control to bring one of their Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) to Oregon to assist with finding difficult to detect fires. This specialty aircraft flew across much of eastern Oregon on Sunday and Monday. Early detection is critical to ODF’s mission keeping fires at the smallest possible size, which reduces the financial impact to landowners and Oregonians and limits impact to natural resources such as air, soil, and water quality, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic and recreation values.

Four fires were detected during Sunday’s flight in ODF’s Central Oregon District.  These fires were single-tree fires or small spots with little to no visible smoke.  Due to the remote location and heavy vegetation cover, it is highly likely these fires would have increased in intensity as temperatures warmed.  “Looking at the location and fuel types where those fires were detected, it’s not a good feeling to imagine what they could have been,” said Mike Shaw, Eastern Oregon Area Director.

Equipped with cameras and software specially adapted for use in wildfire applications, the MMA system uses a sensor ball with an infrared camera and two color cameras (wide and narrow) to detect heat sources from several miles away.  While infrared technology is used to detect heat sources, the MMA is best utilized during the day where the color cameras can be used to collect information regarding terrain, fuels, and fire behavior.  This data, combined with information on fire locations and perimeters, is transmitted directly to resources on the ground. The MMA operates at approximately 20,000 feet—well above tactical aircraft fighting wildfires—so there is no impact to firefighting operations.

This specialty aircraft will be flying across southwest Oregon in the coming days. ODF’s Southwest Oregon District has already been using some of its assigned aircraft to look for fires resulting from the more than 1,600 lighting strikes that hit the area last week. In addition to detection, aircraft have greatly assisted crews on recent fires in the district by dropping retardant on steep, remote terrain and giving firefighters a broad, aerial view of what they’re fighting.

The MMA was contracted using severity funding from a Special Purpose Appropriation from the Oregon Legislature.  Severity funding supports fire suppression activities that are outside the normal ODF districts’ budgeting and activities.

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