The U.S. Forest Service is looking at something different — very different — to improve situational awareness at big wildfires: high altitude balloons. The Forest Service and NASA have teamed up to evaluate the use of remote controlled balloons that can loiter high above fire scenes. The federal agencies are working to finalize a contract with South Dakota-based Aerostar, which has decades of experience flying uncrewed balloons for scientific and military missions. Earlier this month, Aerostar piloted its huge Thunderhead Balloon system over a large wildfire in central Idaho. …The helium balloon carried a solar-powered sensor and transmitter package with visual and thermal cameras that could see through smoke. It hovered between 60,000 and 70,000 feet. …This gets at what one firefighting insider blog called “the Holy Grail” of wildland fire safety — namely, giving fire commanders a real-time view of where the flames are burning in relation to where firefighters are deployed.