Researchers Working On New Technology To Help Firefighters Plan Escape Route

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Monday, October 23, 2017 - 3:21pm
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"Only the Brave," the dramatization of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, opened this weekend. Their deaths were due in part to being cut off from their escape route.

Now, researchers at the U.S. Forest Service and University of Utah are working together to utilize a new technology to help firefighters plan escape routes from wildland fires.

“What we’re doing is using LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, to map the most efficient routes to safety for wildland firefighters," said Mickey Campbell at the University of Utah, who is working on this research which he describes as almost like a Google Maps for firefighters.

“What we’re doing is mapping three different different landscape conditions on the ground. The first being the slope of the terrain. The second being the density of the vegetation and the third being kind of the roughness of the ground’s surface," he said.

Using LIDAR they map these variables and based on their understanding the degree to which these variables slow someone down they can determine the most efficient route to safety from any location. Eventually this would be an app on a phone or GPS.

But that won’t be happening soon. When dealing with firefighter safety, researchers don’t want to get anything wrong and as Mickey Campbell explains.“One of our key limitations right now is the fact that LIDAR is not currently available nationwide. It’s kind of limited in terms of where we can apply this technique so hopefully in the next say five years we will have nationwide LIDAR at which point this will be a much more potentially viable technology for wildland firefighters," he said.

One person who’s looking forward to the implementation of this mapping technology is Bret Butler a research engineer with the U.S. Forest Service.

“A crew that’s working on a fire or a team that’s managing a fire could look at that map and say this is the area that we’re working in and these are the openings that we have so what do we need to do to make sure our firefighters are safe," Butler said.

While we’re a few years away from seeing the LIDAR system in national use. Once it’s up and running, Campbell sees the technology having other uses such as finding the most efficient route to scramble up a mountain but the main focus is wildland firefighter safety.

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