WHEN lightning storms attack the mountains and start fires, one of the first lookouts to see where the thunderbolts hit the forest will be a computer in a crowded control room at Boise. It's the Boise Interagency Fire Center.
Fans of the techno-thriller genre would have a field day here at BIFC. They could watch computers talking to each other, matching historical data from urban data banks with up-to-the-minute intelligence beamed in via satellite from remote, solar-powered field data stations.
The central computer, which gathers intelligence from a network of 35 remote lightning sensors, will compare notes with another, which records local conditions measured by 400 remote solar-powered weather stations. Data for local rangers
The combined data will be forwarded to local rangers, reminding them how much dry fuel there is near the lightning strike and whether there is wind enough to fan small flames into larger ones.
Another section of the data bank will provide information on terrain and fuel downwind of the fire. If all that news is bad and there is reason to start planning to fight a forest fire, rangers can punch a few keys and call up a computerized map, customizing it to include whatever details they want: roads, rivers, and lakes, or county, state, and international boundaries that can determine who fights the fire and how to get them there.
Overhead, a pair of planes equipped with smoke-penetrating infrared cameras can record the boundaries of the fire and identify the areas where it is burning hottest.
"The computer age has really hit here with a vengeance," BIFC spokesman Arnold Hartigan said. "When you have all of that information printed out from that computer, you can get a good idea of the probability of a fire and how rapidly it can spread."
There are plenty of binoculars and shovels in the BIFC warehouse, but a computer is what Smokey Bear might lean on if his poster were painted here.
Staffed by fire experts from six federal land-management agencies, "Biff-See," as it is known locally, is the action center for the nation's forest firefighting effort.
In addition to creating and maintaining a high-tech intelligence network, the center also coordinates the sharing of fire-fighting tools and supplies and staff among six agencies: The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Weather Service.
When firefighters from Arkansas to Alaska use up their local resources and need more planes to dump water or more strong backs to dig fire lines, they call BIFC.
The supplies could come from a Bureau of Land Management district in Nebraska, an Arizona office of the US Forest Service, or from BIFC's vast warehouse in Boise.
The BIFC staff does not tell rangers how to fight their fires, but in the National Coordination Center, a supply expert will sift through computerized inventories, scan maps, and have whatever is needed shipped to the fire site.
With a fleet of planes at its disposal, the BIFC has moved more than a million pounds of gear a year in past fire seasons and dispatched tens of thousands of firefighters in a week, arranging transportation and supplies to support them.
Fast planes made the BIFC possible.
Established in 1965, the center took advantage of speedy jets that could move gear and firefighters thousands of miles in a matter of hours. Jets helped logistics
"Before, it was not practical to move resources long distances," Hartigan said. "Those planes made it possible to gear up for a normal year and then, if things got worse, the fire center could help get what was needed from elsewhere."
And because most of the nation's large wildfires are in the West, Boise was a good choice for a centrally located supply and information post.
While its jurisdiction stretches from coast to coast, BIFC gets called in on only a fraction of the tens of thousands of fires that burn on federal land every year.
Local land-management offices deal with 90 percent of the nation's forest fires, Hartigan said. The other 10 percent grow too big too fast and require local managers to call for help from BIFC.
With the West suffering through its sixth straight summer of drought, BIFC staff members are working overtime in what could be one of the worst fire seasons ever.
How bad is bad?
In the West, all fires are measured against the 1910 fires that swept across northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, encompassing 4.9 million acres before they burned out. Smoke from that fire drifted as far east as Boston. A hot two years
Last summer, there were more than 75,000 forest fires that burned 2.9 million acres, and the year before, 4.6 million acres burned coast to coast, Hartigan said.
When things get hot, there are as many as 30 people working at the supply center 24 hours a day, processing orders from firefighters all over the country.
Hartigan said that despite the advances in fire spying technology, there are some aspects of firefighting that have not changed for decades and the firefighters' mascot, Smokey Bear, should still be painted with a shovel in his paws.
The remote lightning sensors cannot distinguish between a lightning strike that does no harm and one that sets a tree ablaze, nor can the machine help when a sloppy camper starts a forest fire. "Automatic lightning detection doesn't do a thing for human-caused fires," he said.
Forest firefighters still rely on human lookouts and ground patrols.
And once a fire starts, the fuel must still be scratched from the ground in a ring around the fire and the edge burned back toward the fire until there is no fuel for the fire to spread into.
"That's still the basic tactic that is used in a lot of cases," Hartigan said. "You've still got men and women out there on the line with pulaskis (a firefighting tool) and shovels, throwing dirt at the fire. That's still the most efficient and effective way to get a line around the fire."