Thermal Imaging: Thermal Imaging Enhances Wildland Firefighter Safety and Effectiveness

Thermal Imaging | Manfred Kihn

Thermal Imaging Enhances Wildland Firefighter Safety and Effectiveness

By now, many fire departments are conducting wildland training while government forestry agencies are gearing up for what many anticipate will be a bad year. Global warming is said to have a lot to do with climate change, since right now many regions are flooding while others are in drought conditions.

Carl Nix

Wildland firefighters over the years have battled fire from the air and on the ground, relying on their training and many years of experience. Fighting these fires, often in poor visibility and with limited knowledge about burning conditions, with the use of small handheld thermal imaging cameras (TICs) can greatly enhance wildland firefighters’ knowledge of working conditions safely on the ground. Aircraft, be it fixed wing or rotary wing, also have the same capabilities using forward-looking infrared devices mounted to the aircraft to gather intelligence. These reconnaissance flights gather vital information from the air.

Used properly, handheld TICs can help crews more effectively monitor the flank and head of the fire, place personnel in key areas to create control lines, enhance safety during firefighting, and improve the control of prescribed burns. Firefighters can also use TICs to enhance their safety when navigating through smoke, up and down hoselines, and around vehicle ground guide movement.

A thermal imaging camera can be an effective tool for wildland firefighting during mop-up to scan burned areas to ensure the fire is completely out. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

1 A thermal imaging camera can be an effective tool for wildland firefighting during mop-up to scan burned areas to ensure the fire is completely out. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)


Let’s look at a few applications for using TICs when battling a fire.

  1. To monitor the flank and head of the fire from the air. On a TIC screen, hotter objects appear as white, cooler objects appear as black, and objects in between these temperatures are displayed in shades of gray. The fire’s location and progress are evident from an aerial position, regardless of sunlight or smoke conditions. This enables firefighters to precisely monitor fire progress in a way otherwise impossible. The ability to monitor the fire progress during low-light conditions means crews can begin operations earlier in the day and end later in the evening, thereby increasing efficiency and decreasing the duration of fires.
  2. To place and monitor personnel. In large fire response operations, the placement of personnel is critical to gaining control. Incident commanders can make use of their enhanced visibility through thermal imaging to determine key locations to place wildland firefighters and fire lines. Proper placement enhances the firefighter’s ability to protect structures, threatened habitats, and critical infrastructure. As ground crews deploy, airborne supervisors can monitor their locations and ensure a coordinated and an effective response.
  3. To monitor dangers and extinguish hot spots on the ground. With proper training on image interpretation, firefighters can effectively use a TIC to monitor fire movement on the ground and in the trees above them. They can track and monitor the direction and volume of firebrands. With practice, firefighters can use their TIC to identify snags, thereby improving safety on the job. During mop-up, crews with TICs can scan burned areas to ensure the fire is completely out.
  4. To manage prescribed burns. Controlled burns are critical to reducing the fuel load to improve manageability of wildland fires. Using the TIC, wildland firefighters involved in prescribed burning can monitor the direction of fire spread and manage mop-up more effectively. The information the TIC provides is often key to protecting exposures and ensuring that such “controlled” burns don’t get out of control.
  5. To navigate. When firefighters travel by ground during active wildland fires, their vision may be obscured by smoke. TICs used from a vehicle (through an open window, as TICs cannot see through glass) can assist the driver in navigating safely through thick smoke and avoiding fixed hazards as well as moving objects such as other crew members. Similarly, when smoke obscures their vision, firefighters on foot can use TICs to identify safer routes based on terrain or fire movement, helping crews move safely and effectively.

Thermal imaging technology is not a replacement for basic tactics or techniques. When using a TIC during mop-up, you may experience times when it cannot detect a hidden heat source, such as when the heat exists deep within a tree trunk. You may find some images on the TIC’s screen inconclusive, as heated-up rocks and large boulders will show up as white. In these cases, use traditional tactics along with the information provided by the TIC to identify the fire’s location and rate of spread. If you’re unsure, always err on the side of caution.

As with any other application of technology, planning and practice are the keys to effective TIC use. Firefighters must not only understand what they see on the TIC, but they must also learn how to use this information seamlessly with the topographical and locational information they already employ on the job.

Handheld TICs are very effective from an aircraft in case you happen to find yourself onboard one during your response. Just remember, they don’t see through plexiglass, so use either an open window or door for viewing.

TICs can be used to improve operations in a wide variety of wildland firefighting operations, from the air and on the ground. Although the dangers wildland firefighters face differ from those structural firefighters face, the TIC can benefit both. First, understand how you can use a TIC during a wildfire response; then practice with it on a regular basis to improve your personal safety as well as your team’s effectiveness.


Manfred Kihn is a 19-year veteran of the fire service, having served as an ambulance officer, emergency services specialist, firefighter, captain, and fire chief. He has been a member of Bullard’s Emergency Responder team since 2005 and is the company’s fire training specialist for thermal imaging technology. He is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor and is a recipient of the Ontario Medal for Firefighters Bravery. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you can e-mail him at

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