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Firefighters Use Computers, Satellites In Wilderness

August 16, 1986

ENTERPRISE, Ore. (AP) _ Lightning struck Oregon, Idaho and Montana on Sunday, and the people who watch the West for fires knew exactly where it hit - all 6,802 times.

The lightning detection system, a network of 33 strategically located antennae feeding information to the Boise Interagency Fire Center, is just one of a host of high-tech gadgetry making it faster, easier and cheaper to fight fires in the wilderness.

The information is fed through land lines to the center, where it shows up on a computerized map that pinpoints the latitude and longitude of each strike. On a color-coded printout, tiny green diamonds mark potential hot spots.

″In the intermountain West, where 70 percent of the fires are lightning- caus ed, we can find out about fires when they’re 10 acres or less, which costs about $1,000 an acre to suppress,″ Arnold Hartigan, the center’s public information officer, said Friday.

″Over 10 acres, the costs of fighting a fire go up exponentially. So if we can detect and suppress even half the fires we have and keep them under 10 acres in size, we can save millions.″

For the past week, firefighters in the Northwest have been battling lightning-sparked blazes that have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.

At Sled Springs Base Camp in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains, an area struck by a blizzard of lightning bolts during Sunday’s storm and virtually obliterated by green diamonds on the strike computer map, logistics and planning officials keep track of fires over thousands of acres with the help of a $113,000 portable satellite dish-computer system, the only one of its kind in the nation.

The 108-pound Data System is set up in 20 minutes, creating an instant link between the remote mountain fire camp and its logistics center in LaGrande, more than 80 miles away.

″Without Data, we wouldn’t be here,″ said Madonna Lengerich, a communications technician from the Boise center. ″There was no way to talk to the outside world. We couldn’t get very central to the fire location without this set up.″

The portable satellite dish perches atop a makeshift plywood shack, where Sled Springs fire workers relay messages and supply requests, file reports and receive weather data and other vital information from La Grande.

The system’s twin computers, built to military specifications, can survive dust, heat and other fire-camp hazards that would traumatize less durable machines.

The Data System also means instant access to critical lightning detection, terrain and weather information, the three components that make up the Initial Attack Management System, which helps track and control quirky western fires.

″We take the locality where lightning hit the ground, give weather data in the general geographic area, we pull in the vegetation and terrain off another satellite. We combine those, and hopefully, are able to predict the probability of a lightning strike to become a fire,″ said Richard Astley, chief of the center’s information systems management division.

A few miles from Sled Springs camp, portable ″talking″ Remote Automated Weather Stations feed weather data instantaneously to the Boise center and back to the La Grande command center.

″It can mean the difference between pulling crews off at night because you expect a fire to lay down and keeping them on because you know that fire’s going to keep spreading,″ Astley said.

In the field, fire managers have access to the data within minutes.

″This has shortened our response time considerably,″ said Mike Ferris, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman at the Sled Springs camp.

″Before, we had to keep people in lookout towers 24 hours when storms came through,″ he said. ″We’d have to send up reconnaisance flights and they’d have to cover the entire forest looking for fires.

″Now we know pretty much exactly where to look. It’s a dandy little tool.″


Lisa Levitt Ryckman is an AP regional writer covering the Northwest.

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