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MMAs: A new frontier of firefighting in Colorado

The Colorado wildfires of 2012 took lives, homes and left burn scars across the land. In the aftermath, state firefighting officials decided it was time to take a new approach. 

“We had these huge fires that cost a lot of money, and we have a growing wildland/urban interface here along the Front Range, meaning more people are building houses in our wildland,” says Jesse Moreng, multi-mission aircraft manager with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “There’s also a degenerating health of the forest as far as bugs, insects and dying trees, and warming weather conditions.” 

With these factors in mind, the state of Colorado has invested in multi-mission aircrafts (MMAs), state-of-the-art airplanes that aim to fundamentally change the way we fight fires. By using technology originally designed for military operations and applying it to firefighting, MMAs are able to identify even the smallest of fires in ways and from distances that had previously not been possible. 

Typically, aircraft detecting fires would fly at about 5,000 feet above ground level, putting them directly above any fire action on the ground, but also putting them in a position where they need to coordinate with other helicopters and air tankers in close proximity. Using human visuals, fire and smoke were then detected and relayed to those on the ground. The new MMAs, however, use the MX-15HDi infra-red camera to detect fires from distances as far as 18-20,000 feet above ground, and then capture and share those images in real-time using CO-WIMS, a wildfire information management system designed to communicate things like maps, fire images and latest information with personnel on the ground. 

This technology serves to supplement the important decision-making made by those operating the MMAs. Firefighting and the study of fire behavior takes a specialized skillset, which is why these planes are operated by firefighters like Moreng, an experienced hotshot, and his team. 

Colorado remained free of large-scale fires this past season. When MMAs were deployed, they were able to detect even the smallest of fires. For example, they were recently able to spot a single tree on fire in an area where the smoke wouldn’t have been visible until the fire had potentially spread. 

The MMAs have been put to use in Washington, Oregon and Wyoming, to help with larger firefighting operations as well. 

“Firefighting is a collaborative effort around the United States,” says Moreng. “Resources are constantly being shared between interagency groups. [MMAs are] a brand-new firefighting resource, and the advantage of us going to Oregon and Washington is that we’re getting training while there’s not much going on here. It’s helping someone else while also bettering our program and getting better at our jobs.” 

If major fire seasons do return to Colorado in the future, the MMAs should help temper their destruction and the cost that goes along with it. 

“As a fire grows, so does its cost,” says Moreng. “To find a single tree on fire – the only cost is the personnel to hike on a mountain and take care of it when there’s relatively low risk.” 

Colorado’s 2012 wildfires by the numbers 

4,167: Number of wildland fires reported in the state

6: Lives lost 

648: Structures destroyed

$538 million: Estimated cost in property loss 

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