SOUTHERN UTAH — Every year lightning strikes cause wildfires in Southern Utah. Have you ever wondered who chases the lightning and who fights the wildfires?
Color Country Interagency Fire Center, located in Cedar City, is an interagency dispatch center in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the State of Utah Forestry Fire and State Lands.
Color Country is responsible for coordinating wildland firefighting efforts.
“We initial attack wildland fires in the five counties of southwestern Utah and the Arizona strip,” Color Country Dispatch Center Manager Bill Roach said.
Nationwide, there are 32,000 firefighters battling wildfires right now, Nick Howell, education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Cedar City, said Sunday, Aug. 23.
“Color Country-wide, we average, every summer, about 500 fires,” Howell said.
Chasing the lightning is also part of the job, he said. A satellite base tracks the lightning patterns and lightning storms.
“We are able to coordinate our fire suppression controls based off of where the lightning activity is the greatest,” Howell said. “We can also do that by air with a fixed-wing airplane and fight the fires that way.”
When lightning strikes
When a fire develops, all agencies work closely together to develop a plan of action; whether they use firefighters on the ground or have help from the air by using aircraft, firefighter safety and public safety is the No. 1 priority, Howell said, then the plan of action is executed.
“We send the appropriate resources to suppress the fire,” Roach said, “depending upon the weather or the fuels or situation.”
“It all starts with our local fire departments going out; and we also work real closely with those local fire departments to bring this real coordinating effort together,” said Mike Melton, area fire management officer for the southwestern area, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands Management.
The airplanes give support to the firefighters on the ground.
“I think it needs to be clear that the … airplanes don’t put the fires out themselves, it takes the people on the ground,” Melton said.
What the public can do to help
- When a fire ignites, make sure to report the fire by calling 911
“We are starting to see a lot of people in the public that are really interested in getting photos and videos to us which is great, ” Howell said. “But before you do that just make sure, we would encourage the public to make sure that the fire has actually been reported by calling 911 and make sure first responders are on their way before you focus on social media.”
- Keep your vehicles maintained
“We’ve actually seen a lot of people cause fires caused on the travel corridors,” Howell said, “people dragging chains, people not maintaining their vehicles, they are having blown tires and starting fires.”
- Don’t fly drones near wildfires
“So a close encounter, an impact with a drone could take one of our firefighting aircraft and, and just you know, make them crash,” Melton said. “So its, its become policy that if we sight these drones on our fires we’re grounding the aircraft, because if they’re flying, we can’t.”
An example of drone hindrance of vital firefighting efforts occurred in San Bernardino, California, in July when tanker operations were stymied for about 25 minutes due to a drone being flown in the area of the North Fire which crossed over and onto Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group posted a warning on the North Fire incident Web page:
Fire Managers urge individuals and organizations that fly drones to avoid the wildfire areas to ensure the safety of firefighters and the effectiveness of wildfire suppression operations. Unauthorized drone flights over or near the wildfires could cause serious injury or death to firefighters on the ground.
Unauthorized drones could also be involved in midair collisions with air-tankers, helicopters, and other aircraft engaged in fire suppression operations. This could decrease the effectiveness of fire suppression operations, allowing the fire to grow larger and potentially threaten lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources.
Firefighting aircraft typically fly at about the same, or lower, altitude than hobbyists or recreationists fly drones, often in smoky, windy, and turbulent conditions. Safety depends on knowing what other aircraft are operating in the airspace and knowing their altitude and direction of travel.
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