How Thermal Imaging is used by Firefighters

Thermal imaging is a valuable tool for firefighters, especially those fighting wild fires. It gives the crews a means of finding the places that need the most attention, and can mean the difference between containing the fire or having it spread out of control.

What thermal imaging is

To understand how it is used, it is first important to understand what a thermal image is and how it is derived. 

Heat produces infrared radiation. Cameras have been designed that detect and map the radiation. The US Forest Service even has satellites that do this from orbit. A small heat source doesn’t produce much of an image, but an intense one does. The hotter the fire, the more it shows up on the thermal map because the infrared is the source of the pictures.

These pictures and maps don’t look like what most of us are acquainted with, at least until they are overlaid on a familiar map. They usually use colors and are often similar to topographical maps with the outlines of the “hot spots”. A thermal satellite image can show a large area of forest that is on fire and show where it is burning most intensely.

Firefighting use of thermal images

Since thermal images show the cooler and hotter areas of the fire, this gives the firefighters an advantage. Cooler areas are less likely to cause the spread of the fire, while the hotter ones are more likely to cause a spread. Firefighting efforts can be concentrated on the hotter areas, and coordinated with the people on the ground, once the people know where they are. 

At the same time, the images show where the fire has jumped the containment line. In these areas, the fire might not be hot, but it needs immediate attention to keep it from spreading. Without thermal imaging, the fire could already be raging before anyone even knew about the breech. With the images, crews can be dispatched quickly to contain the fires before they become large.

The downside of thermal imaging

Like most things, there is a downside of this technology. The biggest is probably that only a few people can read and truly understand the images. An expert, such as Steve T., who worked for the US Forest Service, could look at the images and rapidly tell what areas needed immediate attention and which could be allowed to simply burn. Effort in places where it isn’t needed are wasted. 

It takes time to be able to make the distinction, and a lot of training. It also helps to be familiar with the area. Without the expertise, efforts can be futile and land can end up burning, unimpeded. 

Thermal imaging is a tool firefighters rely upon to contain and put out the fires. They are a marvel of technology. Yet, they require people who can read the imaging maps, interpret them and advise the wisest course of action. Great technology means little if there is nobody who can understand it.

Additional resources:

US Forest Service

US department of Agriculture