New System Could Help Control Fires In Florida Forests

GAINESVILLE—Smokey the Bear is getting some high-tech help from University of Florida researchers in his quest to prevent forest fires.

UF researchers and Florida foresters are using three new technologically advanced systems — one recently declassified by the U.S. Department of Defense — to develop a system to help foresters decide how to control fires.

The new model can help project the path of a fire before it spreads, saving property and even lives, said researcher Loukas Arvanitis, a forestry professor at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

In the past two years alone, more than 120,000 acres have been burned by 6,575 wildfires statewide. The fires were caused by lightning, campfires, smoking and children playing with combustibles.

Almost 48 percent of Florida — more than 16.5 million acres — is forested, Arvanitis said, and forestry and related activities pump $8.8 billion a year into the state’s economy. The new system being developed by UF and the Florida Division of Forestry could help minimize the human and economic impact of fires, Arvanitis said.

The system makes use of remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, and the recently declassified Global Positioning System, or GPS. The GPS was first used in Desert Storm and has only recently been made available for civilian purposes.

GPS uses a constellation of 24 satellites to locate a person or an object on the earth’s surface — firefighting equipment and personnel for instance.

And GIS is a technology that links digital mapping with computer databases. GIS can be used to create, display and manipulate forest maps, and integrate them with other information such as elevation, water bodies and swamps, soil types, paved and dirt roads, paths and other data that can be used in deciding how to control a fire.

Remote sensing, or satellite imagery, provides up-to-date information on ground conditions and can be used to identify landscape features and changes over time.

Integrating these three technologies provides a precise and fast method of locating a fire and determining the best response to it.

“Foresters may have several different ways to respond, with firefighting equipment at different locations, and several fires to deal with simultaneously. Not only does GIS identify the closest response vehicle, it also identifies the most appropriate,” said Dan Brackett, a GIS analyst working with Arvanitis. “If a fire is in a swamp, you wouldn’t send a heavy vehicle, for example. And GIS identifies the route vehicles should take to the fire.

“By decreasing the time it takes to get to a fire, we’re reducing the damage caused by fire and hopefully protecting life and property in the process,” Brackett said.

The same system also is useful for officers who authorize controlled burns in Florida’s forests.

The prescribed burns control the undergrowth so that if a wildfire starts there is less fuel to feed it. Burning off the undergrowth also has an environmental benefit, allowing trees to grow without vegetation stealing nutrients and allowing new grasses to grow to feed wildlife.

Smoke from controlled burns, however, sometimes blows into areas where it can cause problems, Arvanitis said.

The computerized system UF researchers are working on uses a smoke dispersion model and up-to-date weather data to predict the path of smoke plumes and whether they might intrude into sensitive areas, such as airport runways, highways, hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

“Being able to project the size and direction of a plume is a major benefit,” Arvanitis said. “It’s not unusual for smoke to close highways and cause other health-related problems in South Florida, for example, when the there is a burn in the sugar cane fields.”

The high-tech equipment also is rapidly becoming more accessible. While today’s firefighting vehicles are not equipped with GPS, Arvanitis said the vehicles of the future likely will be. Fire officials at a command post will be able to call up a computerized map, determine instantly where each vehicle is, and reassign them to new areas as needed.

“The system is designed to display detailed and current information to assist in making timely and intelligent decisions,” Arvanitis said.

Tests are being conducted at the Chipola River Ranger District.

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