Flame-resistant cameras give experts new view on wildfires

Last Updated Sep 5, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

CALIFORNIA -- At least 56 wildfires are burning in seven states.

Firefighters are staying a step ahead, by getting up close.

Across the West this year, wildfires are burning hotter and faster.

"The fire is moving sometimes a mile an hour -- well beyond the capabilities of ground crews to deal with," said Fire Behavior Analyst Dennis Burns.

screen-shot-2015-09-04-at-7-53-44-pm.png
View of a wildfire from a camera moments before it was incinerated.
CBS News

Burns says millions of drought-stricken dead trees are burning fast, helping flames spread to healthy trees that otherwise may have survived.

When Burns looks out in the forest and sees all the dead trees he thinks that if they get another ignition people could die because the fire is going to travel so fast.

CBS News got a rare view from inside a fire. Less than a minute after the flames appear, the heat generates powerful wind gusts blowing the fire in all directions.

Within two minutes, the flames incinerate trees and engulf the camera.

"I think it's three minutes of video before the camera shuts off," said Carol Ewell, who leads the U.S. Forest Service's Fire Behavior Assessment team.

The assessment team is using flame resistant camera equipment and sensors placed in the path of an 80,000 acre fire burning in California's Sierra National Forest. The technology helps them understand how to better fight the fires.

"Which way is the fire going? Is it only going to travel uphill or is it also flanking?" Ewell said. "Which fuel is it burning first?"

This kind of video is something no firefighter ever wants to see in person.

"Absolutely not," said Burns. "That video will show you that if you are in front of a fire, you're not going to survive it.

Last week alone, the U.S. Forest Service spent nearly a quarter billion dollars fighting wildfires. It's now having to borrow from other programs.