NASA partners with private vendors to fight wildfires

Inside a Hangar 248 at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View scientists are developing state-of-the-art technology. The agency usually tasked with looking to the cosmos is now focusing its gaze not at the stars, but on California's forests.  

Scientists from both NASA and private companies have led the development of new drones that can see through the smoke and flames at a forest fire's core and boundaries to relay where and how far destruction could spread.

"You cannot imagine how passionate the people are at NASA, but especially at Ames Research Center, about solving this problem," said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.

Drone pilots can position the craft for a pinpoint delivery of newly developed fire retardant, to stop the flames in its tracks. A variety of vendors have joined forces with NASA to develop or improve systems that supplement firefighting efforts on the ground and in the air.

"This creates a crust. Almost like an inert crust, we starve the fuel of the oxygen, so it can’t burn," said Shawn Sahbari, founder & CEO of Komodo Fire Systems. "If an ember or firework or cigarette butt or any kind of fire source hits it, instead of combusting, it’s going to go out."

The advancements not only help protect the public and homes, but also firefighters on the ground and in the air.

"It is that second layer, that extra help for the person using their eyes and ears to maintain awareness – this can kind of automate that step," Lauren Claudatos, of the NASA Ames Human Integration Systems.

Officials and experts said all of this technology can make a difference. But changing climate, coupled with risky behavior could lead to continued fire destruction, locally, regionally, and globally.

"We look at the Earth as a system in science with disasters, with climate change, with weather, with how the plants react… and how wildfires plow through our forests," said Florian Schwandner, chief of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

In the past three years California has seen tens of thousands of wildfires that have burned over 20 million acres of land.

"Wildfires are getting increasingly worse, and we need better observation and understanding of the wildfire environment," said Dr. Craig Clements, director of the San Jose State's Fire Research Laboratory.

Often, experts said, lightning strikes or wind shifts transform glowing embers into a Goliath of flames and destruction.

"We need better and better science. We need sophisticated tools to address this," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto). 

Jesse Gary is a reporter based in the station's South Bay bureau. Follow him on Twitter, @JesseKTVU and Instagram, @jessegontv