Machines Against the Rage: High tech meets high temps on fire-fighting’s front lines

By Betsy Hinchey

This summer has been devastating for Arizona; in the past month it has had three major blazes. One of the fires, the Wallow fire, is the largest wildfire in Arizona history. It consumed over a thousand square miles and took weeks to contain. Every year there are more than 100,000 wildfires in the United States, devouring 4 to 5 million acres, as stated by National Geographic.

Most firefighting techniques are decades old, or older. The simplest way to fight a forest fire is with portable water backpacks. Fighters can dig trenches and turn over earth to contain a blaze. In larger fires fighters call in support from specially equipped planes and helicopters. In another method called “backfiring”, crews ignite surrounding brush in an effort to eliminate potential fuel in a wildfire’s path.

Fire-fighting technology makes small improvements all the time, from stronger water pumps to more flexible firefighting gloves. Conspicuously absent are the large-scale, revolutionary improvements other emergency response fields have enjoyed. However, the last decade’s procession of deadly blazes prompted a new focus on fire fighting tech.

Enter the P-34 Rapid Intervention Vehicle, a heavy-duty fire truck developed by the US Air Force. Like its civilian cousins, the P-34 can spray water and firefighting foam, but at an ultra-high pressure of 1,350 psi. This high pressure gives the vehicle an incredible range, but also allows the truck to store more fluid. The vehicle is smaller and more agile than previous firefighting vehicles, and is expected to be in production in September 2011.

A team of researchers is developing another new technology with two million dollars award by the National Science Foundation. For years TV weathermen have tapped into computer models to bring you the five-day forecast. Now these researchers want to apply the same methods to the complex forces inside a fire. They are developing a computer model that will put a powerful predictive tool into the hands of firefighters.

Lastly, researchers at Harvard are exploring how electricity can extinguish flames. It sounds like science fiction, but the team is well on their way to developing a wand firefighters can use to shoot a fire-extinguishing electrical beam. Although this technology would be more suitable for everyday fires, not massive wildfires, the innovation in using electricity to put out flames has the possibility of later use on a larger scale.

All of these technologic advancements could lead to major benefits to our firefighting methods, and it is important we never stop looking for these improvements. Unfortunately, fire has proven to be at times uncontrollable, which is why sometimes the best way to fight a wildfire is to evacuate the homes and wait it out. Eventually, either the fire will run out of fuel or it will rain. It’s amazing that despite our innovations, Mother Nature is the biggest help of all.

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