JUDITH KOHLER The Denver Post
DENVER — With wildfires growing larger and more destructive as the West dries up and warms, agencies and officials tasked with preventing and fighting wildfires may soon have a new tool to add to their arsenal of prescribed burns, pickaxes, chainsaws and planes.
The high-tech help could come from a field not normally associated with fighting wildfires: artificial intelligence. And space.
Lockheed Martin Space leverages decades of experience in managing satellites, space exploration and providing information to the US military to deliver more accurate data faster to ground crews. They are talking with the US Forest Service, university researchers and a Colorado state agency about how their technology could be useful.
By generating more timely information about conditions on the ground and running computer programs to process massive amounts of data, Lockheed Martin representatives say they can map fire perimeters in minutes rather than time. They say the artificial intelligence, or AI, and machine learning the company has applied to military use can improve predictions about the direction and speed of a fire.
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“The scenario in which wildfire operators and commanders work is very similar to that of the organizations and individuals who defend our homeland and our allies. It’s a dynamic environment spanning multiple activities and responsibilities,” said Dan Lordan, senior AI integration manager at Lockheed Martin’s Artificial Intelligence Center.
Lockheed Martin aims to use its technology developed over years in other areas to reduce the time it takes to gather information and make decisions about wildfires, said Rich Carter, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Space mission solutions.
“The faster you can react, I hope you can contain the fire faster and protect people’s property and lives,” Carter said.
The concept of a regular fire season is all but gone as drought and warmer temperatures make western lands primed to ignite. In late December, the Marshall Fire burned 991 homes and killed two people in Boulder County, Colorado. The Denver area just had its third driest April with just 0.06 inches of humidity, according to the National Weather Service.
Colorado had the most fire weather warnings in April than any other April in the past 15 years. Crews quickly brought the wind-driven fires under control which forced evacuations along the Front Range and across the Eastern Plains. But six Monte Vista families lost their homes in April when a fire burned down part of the southern Colorado town.
Since 2014, Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control has flown aircraft equipped with infrared and color sensors to detect wildfires and provide the most up-to-date information possible to ground crews. The onboard equipment is integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a database that provides images and details to local fire officials.
“Last year, we uncovered nearly 200 new fires that nobody knew about,” said Bruce Dikken, unit chief for the agency’s multi-mission aircraft program. “I don’t know if any of those 200 fires would have become big fires. I know they didn’t become big fires because we found them.
When the two Pilatus PC-12 planes began flying in 2014, Colorado was the only state with such a program transmitting the information “in near real time,” Dikken said. Lockheed Martin representatives recently spent time in the air on planes to see if its AI could speed up the process.
“We don’t find all the fires that we fly over and it can certainly be faster if we could use some kind of technology that could, for example, automatically draw the perimeter of the fire,” Dikken said. “Right now it’s more of a manual process.”
Something like the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, which at 208,663 acres was Colorado’s largest wildfire, could take hours to map, Dikken said.
And often, people on planes are tracking multiple fires at once. Dikken said the faster they can collect and process data on the perimeter of a fire, the faster they can move on to the next fire. If it takes a few hours to map a fire, “what I drew at the beginning may be a little different now,” he said.
Lordan said Lockheed Martin engineers who flew with state crews, using video and images collected on the flights, were able to produce fire maps in as little as 15 minutes.
The company spoke to the state about carrying an additional computer that could help “analyze all of this information” and relay the map of the fire while still airborne to ground crews, Dikken said. The agency is waiting to hear the results of Lockheed Martin’s experiments aboard the plane and how AI could help the state, he added.
The company also speaks with researchers at the US Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana. Mark Finney, a forestry researcher, said he was early in talks with Lockheed Martin.
“They have a keen interest in applying their skills and abilities to the wildfire problem, and I think that would be welcome,” Finney said.
The Missoula lab has been involved in fire research since 1960 and developed most of the fire management tools used for operations and planning, Finney said. “We’re pretty well positioned to understand where new things and abilities might be useful in the future and some of those things certainly could be.”
However, Lockheed Martin is focused on technology and that’s “not really where the most effective use of our efforts would be,” Finney said.
“Prevention, mitigation and preventative management activities are where the big opportunities lie to change the trajectory we are on,” Finney said. “Improving reactive management is unlikely to yield huge benefits because the underlying source of the problem is fuel structure across large landscapes as well as climate change.”