The Oregon Department of Forestry has been busy. As wildfires raged across Oregon in 2020, the agency was tasked once again with keeping them under control. A lot of industries turn to the latest tech to help with the latest crises, but the forestry department is not exactly an early adopter.
“We started using aerial photography [for wildfires] in 1919 with World War I planes. But a lot of the early ones crashed,” says Jim Gersbach, a spokesperson for ODF. “There’s the research experimental phase before it becomes a practical tool. We look to the federal government to do that kind of proving, for when a technology is battle-ready. You don’t just acquire toys. You want to make sure it works.”
Still, some of ODF’s new tools are indeed cutting-edge. Here’s how the department is fighting Oregon wildfires on its 30 million acres of forestland.
The 747 Supertanker
The famous McMinnville-invented Supertanker carries 19,600 gallons of water or flame-retardant liquid and dumps it on a fire. While it’s effective—so-called “aerial attack” is among ODF’s greatest weapons—the giant planes are expensive, rare, and in-demand worldwide. (The latest Supertanker, the third iteration from now-defunct Evergeen Aviation, has done firefighting tours everywhere from Israel to California to Bolivia.) More commonly, ODF contracts with around two dozen private aircraft—from small planes and helicopters to larger craft—for the duration of fire season for information gathering and aerial attack. Depending on availability, the department might hire additional planes.
First deployed in the 2017 Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge, ODF’s single-engine Partenavia plane now sports a high-powered infrared camera that can pinpoint hot spots through smoke and at night. Knowing where a fire is and how hot it is burning is crucial to directing ground crews and keeping them safe. “Often you’re fighting fires in forests with thick canopies,” says Gersbach. “To put firefighters in there without visibility can be dangerous.”
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