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Could a high-flying balloon help the Forest Service fight wildfires?

A photo of a solar panel attached to a piece of a balloon flying high in the sky.
Courtesy of Salmon-Challis National Forest
Aerostar's is testing STRATO balloon technology to see how it can improve cellular connectivity around wildfires.

For more than a week earlier this month, some residents by Salmon where the Moose Fire is burning saw a bright, reflective ball of light in the sky.

It was not a bird or a plane, the Forest Service explained in a Facebook post, but a giant balloon.

Sean Triplett works for the Forest Service and was monitoring activity on the Moose Fire.

“I was checking out what was happening over the fire, looking at the radar portfolios and everything, and then I looked and saw that balloon was up over the fire,” Triplett said.

This wasn’t the first time the agency had noticed a big balloon hanging out over a wildfire. It saw the same thing last year above the Dixie Fire in California.

At that point, Forest Service employees researched the device and learned it was owned by a company called Aerostar that was testing how its technology could be used to help fight fires.

In the fire community, it’s being referred to as STRATO – or Strategic Radio and Tactical Overwatch – a balloon more than 100 feet tall that sits about 60,000 feet up in the sky.

Attached to it are solar panels, batteries and an infrared camera that allow the balloon to emit LTE signals around the fire and to take images of the blazes, even through the smoke.

The balloon was above the Moose Fire for 11 days, from Aug 2. to Aug. 13.

Triplett, who is in charge of evaluating and implementing new firefighting tools and technology at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said the Forest Service was interested in the STRATO balloon because it is similar to a project it is working on with NASA.

“The hope would be, if you can get the balloon up over the fire, that you can expand the bubble of connectivity and communication, improving not only communication but also situational awareness of firefighters,” Triplett said.

When firefighters are working in remote places, like on the Moose Fire or the Four Corners Fire by Cascade, cell service might be good in town, but even regular radios often don’t work well as the terrain gets increasingly rugged.

Improving the ability to communicate with people on the ground on fires is a top priority for Forest Service leadership, Triplett said.

“Of all of the fires that we’ve had over the past few years, we’ve had major issues with connectivity and communication,” he said.

The ability to take photos could also help employees map the fire more quickly and accurately. Those photos could even be transmitted to firefighters’ cell phones.

This week Triplet is in South Dakota, at Aerostar’s headquarters, and the agency and NASA hope to formalize a partnership with the company this fall. That would allow them to continue testing out the technology to best suit the Forest Service’s needs.

The Forest Service and NASA are also working on a solar-powered, fixed-wing aircraft that would perform similar functions.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.