Central Federal Forest-Fire Unit Provides Data, Supplies Nationwide Solar-Powered Stations in the Field Feed Computers by Satellite - Smokey the Bear Has Gone High-Tech

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WHEN lightning storms attack the mountains and start fires, one of the first lookouts to see where the thunderbolts hit the forest will be a computer in a crowded control room at Boise. It's the Boise Interagency Fire Center.

Fans of the techno-thriller genre would have a field day here at BIFC. They could watch computers talking to each other, matching historical data from urban data banks with up-to-the-minute intelligence beamed in via satellite from remote, solar-powered field data stations.

The central computer, which gathers intelligence from a network of 35 remote lightning sensors, will compare notes with another, which records local conditions measured by 400 remote solar-powered weather stations. Data for local rangers

The combined data will be forwarded to local rangers, reminding them how much dry fuel there is near the lightning strike and whether there is wind enough to fan small flames into larger ones.

Another section of the data bank will provide information on terrain and fuel downwind of the fire. If all that news is bad and there is reason to start planning to fight a forest fire, rangers can punch a few keys and call up a computerized map, customizing it to include whatever details they want: roads, rivers, and lakes, or county, state, and international boundaries that can determine who fights the fire and how to get them there.

Overhead, a pair of planes equipped with smoke-penetrating infrared cameras can record the boundaries of the fire and identify the areas where it is burning hottest.

"The computer age has really hit here with a vengeance," BIFC spokesman Arnold Hartigan said. "When you have all of that information printed out from that computer, you can get a good idea of the probability of a fire and how rapidly it can spread."

There are plenty of binoculars and shovels in the BIFC warehouse, but a computer is what Smokey Bear might lean on if his poster were painted here.

Staffed by fire experts from six federal land-management agencies, "Biff-See," as it is known locally, is the action center for the nation's forest firefighting effort.

In addition to creating and maintaining a high-tech intelligence network, the center also coordinates the sharing of fire-fighting tools and supplies and staff among six agencies: The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Weather Service.

When firefighters from Arkansas to Alaska use up their local resources and need more planes to dump water or more strong backs to dig fire lines, they call BIFC.

The supplies could come from a Bureau of Land Management district in Nebraska, an Arizona office of the US Forest Service, or from BIFC's vast warehouse in Boise.

The BIFC staff does not tell rangers how to fight their fires, but in the National Coordination Center, a supply expert will sift through computerized inventories, scan maps, and have whatever is needed shipped to the fire site. …