Lightning storms and drought conditions are a recipe for wildfires, a mix Central Oregon has seen over the last few days. But what if firefighters could detect those fires before sunrise?
The Oregon Department of Forestry has a small aircraft that looks for wildfires. And what it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in technology.
It’s a red-eye flight utilizing a thermal imaging camera and night vision goggles.
“We’re taking the two and blending them. The military’s been doing that for a long time,” said Dan McCarron, ODF’s Chief Pilot.
Mix in some weather data and what you get back is highly-accurate location information and a detailed look at really small fires.
When storms like the one we experienced this week pass, they crew saddles up and gets airborne.
“We’ve found as many as 10 or 11 new wildfire starts in a night,” said Cole Lindsay, ODF’s Northwest Area Aviation Coordinator.
The FLIR system on board is from military surplus.
The Italian-built Partnavia P68 has been with ODF since 1984. It’s been doing post-storm night detection flights for three years.
“We just fly a path through the lighting and as we’re looking we’re just doing one of these looking for sources of light.”
“We’ve found as many as 10 or 11 new wildfire starts in a night,” said McCarron.
The plane is strategically based in Redmond for much of the fire season and is dispatched all over Oregon.
ODF is one of the few agencies in the country blending those technologies for nighttime fire detection. Daytime detection flights are still used for spotting fires, but those crews are usually looking for smoke.