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Satellites, too, can help fight forest fires

With mobile communications in place, fires can be controlled from the ground and sky  
ENN



May 25, 2000
Web posted at: 12:29 p.m. EDT (1629 GMT)

This weekend, Canadian fire fighters will test a space-age tool that promises to help them combat and contain forest fires on the magnitude of the blaze that scorched Los Alamos, New Mexico, a week ago.

"In an interface fire, like the Los Alamos fire, you have multiple agencies involved and a lot of variables," said Brad Foster of MacDonald Dettwiler in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. "REMSAT (Real Time Emergency Management Via Satellite) uses satellite communication technology to concentrate these variables."

For the second consecutive weekend, MacDonald Dettwiler and the British Columbia Forest Service will simulate an interface fire and put REMSAT to the test. If it passes, the technology will be employed this summer in the battle against real wildfires.

The REMSAT system comprises a big blue box with a satellite dish attached to it. The satellite dish is called a mobile communications unit. When a forest fire gets out of control, fire fighters call in the box, which can be dropped from a helicopter or driven to the front lines of a wildfire.

The box is in constant communication with three satellites that allow the central fire command post to know the exact location of ground crews. It enables them to exchange text messages with the crew and look at detailed images of the area.

"You are able to get a clear picture of where everybody is and how they can best utilize resources to fight the fire," said Foster.

Terminals to communicate in the field are carried like backpacks by the fire fighters  

Each fire fighter has a hand-held terminal that allows them to send and receive text messages in the field. This is an advantage over radio communications, which often get jammed in big blazes. With a text message, which also pinpoints the location of the sender, the crews can quickly request extra supplies.

One of the satellites provides the central command post with near real-time pictures of the fire, showing the fire fighters what the terrain looks like, including the amount of undergrowth and location of buildings and underground gas lines.

In a simulation this past weekend, crews set a house ablaze on a bluff overlooking the town of Squamish, British Columbia, on the road to Whistler/Blackcomb Resort. With smoke bombs, they simulated a fire that was out of control, threatening the town below much like the real Los Alamos fire.

REMSAT was called in and coordinated all the variables to get the blaze under control. Final control came with a splash: three water dumps from the sky, said Foster.

A similar simulation will take place at Lillooet this weekend. MacDonald Dettwiler aims to develop REMSAT into a generic system that could be used anywhere in the world to manage the response to any type of major incident such as an earthquake.

"The mobile communications infrastructure can be used in any situation when communication has been wiped out," said Foster. "Like the Los Angeles (1994) earthquake. Electricity got knocked out and emergency services could not communicate with each other."

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved




RELATED STORIES:
New Mexico surveys fire damage, awaits federal, state reports
May 18, 2000
Can the federal government be sued if it is negligent in setting forest fires?
May 16, 2000
Los Alamos reopens portions of town; more high winds feared
May 15, 2000
12 fire-ravaged New Mexico counties are disaster areas
May 13, 2000
Canadian forest fires add to U.S. pollution
April 14, 2000

RELATED ENN STORIES:
New Mexico, Arizona wildfires nearly out
Cyberhiker: In the hot seat
Los Alamos fire the most destructive in N.M. history
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Canadian forest fires add to U.S. pollution
Lasers in space to benefit Earth

RELATED SITES:
MacDonald Dettwiler
European Space Agency
British Columbia Ministry of Forests

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