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
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. …