High-Tech Equipment Aids Fight Against Arizona Forest Fires

Tablet computers and satellites have been added to the equipments deployed in Arizona’s battle to save its clogged, fire-prone ponderosa pine forests.

Drones may follow. They are another piece of modern technology that the Nature Conservancy and its partners are seriously considering using in their efforts to thin the forests of northern and eastern Arizona by targeting specific trees for cutting as they try to restore a more natural fire pattern.

The high-tech help is contributing to crucial efforts to break up the forest and reduce the risk of a repeat of recent infernos that have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres.

“We’ve lost one-quarter of our ponderosa forest to fire in a decade, and the remaining 3 million acres are at risk,” said Patrick Graham, Arizona state director for the Nature Conservancy.

The non-profit is funding a test of global-positioning technology to instantly catalog every tree that a crew cuts. For now, that helps foresters deciding what should be cut next to better plan ecological restoration. But the ultimate goal is to upgrade the software so the computer can tell timber-cutting machine operators whether to cut or save specific trees in front of them.

That will require digital cameras and computer analysis, something the Nature Conservancy hopes will develop from the latest tests.
Sending unmanned aircraft over the forests could also aid the program, and discussions are under way with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott about testing such drones.

The array of high-tech gadgets is a modern-day answer to the old-time “timber cruisers” who might have needed months to hike through cutting zones and rough out maps that foresters could analyze when prescribing further thinning.

The GPS computers ride along with tree cutters who operate heavy equipment, connecting with satellites to track the work.

Decades of fire suppression have left these forests thicker than they would be if fires could occasionally torch smaller trees while licking harmlessly at the thick bark of older giants. The thickly bunched trees allow flames to rage from limb to limb instead of spreading slowly through grassy meadow patches.

The damage is devastating and mounting: More than 1 million acres burned in the last 10 years, including a half-million in eastern Arizona’s 2011 Wallow Fire alone.

“It’s 100 years of not allowing the most affecting process — which is fire — onto the landscape,” said Neil Chapman, northern Arizona restoration manager for the Nature Conservancy.

If the tablet software develops as planned, the technology will be incorporated into the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which is planning an unprecedented thinning program for nearly 1 million acres in northern Arizona. Right now, the loggers are working with a program developed by Southeastern tree farms, originally meant to help forecast how much timber is headed toward a mill.

For more information, view www.azcentral.com

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