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Eye in the Sky Fights Fire With Technology

An airborne infrared scanner maps subtle heat patterns and provides intelligence to firefighters on the ground.

October 29, 2003|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

From 14,500 feet up in the night sky, the fires north of Rancho Cucamonga look like molten rivers.

But Woody Smith -- a bear of a man seated behind a computer monitor with a keyboard in his lap and a headset blocking out the drone of the twin-engine plane -- is most interested in the fire you can't see.

It is 9:28 p.m. Monday, five minutes after takeoff from Ontario International Airport.

The tanker planes that dumped tens of thousands of gallons of fire retardant throughout the day have been grounded by darkness. So have the helicopters that shuttled firefighters to the edges of the Caldron and conducted reconnaissance flights.

Smith's work has just begun.

He is one of two men in the country who track wildfires using an infrared scanner that maps heat patterns and provides intelligence to firefighters on the ground. The machine, mounted on the underbelly of the Beechcraft Super King Air B200, detects heat and thus "sees" things that helicopter crews and observers on the ground might not: smoldering trees, embers obscured by smoke, kindling heating up.

Tonight, Smith is scanning a 200-square-mile rectangle over the Grand Prix fire, which has gobbled up more than 57,000 acres and dozens of homes.

At 9:35, the plane levels out and begins to trace a grid pattern at 220 mph.

Smith looks out at the smoky sky, back-lighted by flames, and says over the headset, "That's rippin', brother. Look how deep red it's burning. Where it's burning, it's burning a lot."

"Hope it's not homes," responds the pilot, 38-year-old Jeff Cardin.

"Amen, brother," says Smith.

In the mountains about two miles below, firefighters are beginning a shift that will last through the night. They grind their heavy work boots into the soil as they dig trenches. They breathe ash and dodge embers. Soot collects on their faces, shaved smooth to guarantee a tight seal, should they need oxygen masks.

Up here, the air-conditioned cabin resembles a scene from "Mission: Impossible."

The pilot and co-pilot, 48-year-old Bob McCormick, wear shorts and, like Smith, have goatees. Smith is in jeans and white Reeboks.

In front of him, red dots -- indicating heat -- cascade down the monitor; a strip of shiny paper is spilling out underneath.

"This is fire on the ground," he says, pointing to the dots.

And there are splotches of red: "Hot gases in the air."

Through the round windows, patches of Day-Glo orange from the mountain fires disappear under the wing. Other orange spots -- the lights of urban sprawl -- stretch across the horizon, precariously close to the flames in too many places.

The three-man team flew in Sunday night from Boise, Idaho, where it is based at the National Interagency Fire Center, and scanned the fires in San Diego before moving on to the Grand Prix fire.

Though the men have been tracking fires for years, they talk about the flames with awe, each trying to describe the scene but, in the end, only stating the obvious.

"Man, look at that count," Smith says, referring to a measure of heat intensity. "That span is huge," he says, eyeing the screen.

McCormick says, "It's putting out some serious smoke."

At 10:16 p.m., as the plane circles back for a final pass, Smith concludes: "It's some of the worst I've seen."

Smith fought fires in his native Idaho in the early 1980s. Off-season, he headed to Louisiana, where he worked as a maintenance man. Sometime between shifts, he tattooed the words "love" and "death" on his right forearm and got married and started a family. When he decided to pursue a degree in electronic technology, the National Interagency Fire Center offered him an internship. By 1990, he was running the infrared scanner.

Now 39, he loves his job, even though it keeps him away from his family for weeks at a time. He has worked fires as far away as Australia, seen a strip of fire a mile wide and 50 miles long in Nevada and watched flames arrange themselves into what he swears was the shape of a face, miles wide, in Montana.

Infrared technology has been used to track forest fires since the early 1960s. The infrared sensor has a triangular mirror, spinning at 200 revolutions per second and picking up infrared waves. It filters the waves through more mirrors and on to an ultra-sensitive detector cooled with liquid nitrogen. Each pass of the plane maps a 6.5-mile-wide swath of ground.

The scanner works best at night, when the temperature difference between burning ground and safe ground is greatest. The result is a map of the hot spots.

Infrared sensors also are used on helicopters, which can fly close to the ground but often are hampered by smoke. The plane technology, on the other hand, does not work in cloudy weather because moisture in the air absorbs infrared radiation.

At 10:24 p.m., the Super King's grid is complete. As the plane descends, Smith stuffs the printouts into an envelope and burns his data onto a compact disc.

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