Top fire commanders complained Thursday that a significant lack of infrared photographs handicapped efforts to battle this summer’s Yellowstone National Park inferno.
The aerial pictures are considered crucial in firefighting strategy because they accurately pinpoint where a fire is, how hot it is burning and where it is heading.
“As firefighters, we’re used to not having everything we need,” said Rex Mann, a Kentucky-based U.S. Forest Service officer who helped coordinate firefighting strategy in Yellowstone. “When you get in there, there’s always not enough of something, but I’d rather do without some Gatorade or something and have that infrared imagery.”
The complaints were made Thursday at a meeting of ecosystem managers from national parks and forests and state lands in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The summer firestorm dominated discussion at the biannual meeting in Jackson, Wyo.
While Forest Service and National Park Service officials who served as commanders over the dozen Yellowstone fires blamed a breakdown in communications for the infrared problems, the federal agency in charge of assigning the special picture-taking aircraft contended that windy weather and heavy smoke that prevented flying were the real culprits.
Getting the photos “was a consistent problem for well over a month” said Ken Dittmer, the Park Service fire commander. He said it affected every firefight in the greater Yellowstone area but added that it was impossible to tell how much difference the information could have made.
Yellowstone fire officials said they turned in despair to the Pentagon, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and even the White House for help, but the problem was never solved.
The heat-sensitive infrared photos are taken from specially equipped aircraft between midnight and 2 a.m. and are interpreted in time for fire crews setting out at daybreak.
“It sees through smoke and gives you the area of active fire,” Dittmer said. “It tells you where the fire is and where it’s the hottest for the next day’s shift.”
Mann said the dearth of infrared data made him fear for the safety of the thousands of fire crews deployed in Yellowstone.
“Sometimes it’s the only good intelligence you have when the whole world appears to be on fire,” he said in a telephone interview from his office at Daniel Boone National Forest.
“From a safety aspect, you need to know where your fire is, and at Yellowstone we were so smoked in it was impossible to see just visually from the air where the fire was.”
Dittmer said the infrared photos Yellowstone commanders did receive never provided 100% coverage, as they usually do, of the fire perimeters. At best, he said, some of the Yellowstone blazes had 40% coverage, while others had none at all.
At the Boise Interagency Fire Center, which orchestrates Western firefighting efforts, national coordinating officer Skip Scott said the problem “was not the number of airplanes or the priority of Yellowstone’s fires” but the vastness of the fire area and extremely heavy smoke and severe turbulence in the windy skies.
“Some nights, there were breakdowns in the aircraft, and it was too windy,” Mann said, “And sometimes there were higher priority fires than Yellowstone.”
The fires, which continue to burn in several small hot spots across Yellowstone, charred an estimated 400,000 of the park’s 2.2 million acres. The way the fierce blazes were managed triggered a review of federal fire management policy.