Boulder wild land fire crews patrol rough terrain in search of smoke, smoldering vegetation

Lightning strike software pinpoints search area

BOULDER, Colo. - As temperatures climb and vegetation dries out, the risk of wild land fire skyrockets.

Boulder Fire Rescue is responding to that increased risk with daily “severity patrols” on the western edge of the city and in the adjoining mountain areas.

Fire officials say their goal is to catch lightning or human caused fires before they rage out of control.

“We’re looking for smoke and darker patches against the green,” wild land firefighter Thomas Kelsea told 7NEWS.

It’s not always an easy search.

Kelsea said if there is moisture in the air, water vapor can rise from the ground.

“The water vapor looks a lot like smoke,” he said, “so you have to train your eyes.”

When asked how he tells the difference, Kelsea replied, “There’s a little bit of a blue tinge to smoke.”

He said there’s another difference. “Vapor moves sideways. Smoke kind of rolls.”


In addition to shovels, picks and hoses, wild land firefighters from both Boulder and Boulder County have access to high tech lightning strike detection software.

Emergency Management officials told 7NEWS that the software has been in use for more than a year.

“It detected the lightning strike that ignited the Flagstaff fire,” said Dan Barber, OEM deputy director. “Before I could notify dispatch where the strike occurred, a crew on patrol spotted the plume of smoke and responded.”

Barber said the quick response, combined with mutual aide and aerial support, was crucial in limiting the blaze to 300 acres.

“What a lot of folks don’t know,” Barber said, “is that we were able to divert resources from other fires.”

He said before the diversion, the Type I command drew up a probability map which showed that if the Flagstaff blaze wasn’t hit right away and put out, it was going to “run” Boulder just like Waldo (did in Colorado Springs.)


Kelsea said wild land fire patrols have already been successful this summer.

“I was driving and a thunder cell came over really fast,” he said. “Lightning struck to the right of the truck.”

He said the crew pulled over and saw a small patch of ground cover burning.

“We were able to get a handle on it before it made a run,” Kelsea said.


Barber said the lightning software can help firefighters pinpoint where to search when they don’t see the strike with their own eyes.

“It’s not 100 percent effective,” he said, “but it’s a big help.”

Barber said the software is more accurate on the flat plains than in the rugged mountains.

“But in the mountains it can still get fire crews within a few hundred yards of the actual strike,” Barber said.


Kelsea said the software is a great resource, but is no substitute for the firefighters themselves.

“Having boots on the ground is really a very effective way of fighting fires,” he said. “If you want to find it, you have to go out and look for it.”

Print this article Back to Top