Amanda Maxwell

Nov 29th 2018

Wildfire Technologies Putting out Flames


Once again, wildfire season in North America and across Europe made the headlines this summer. Burning through vast tracts of land, the seemingly uncontrollable blazes engulfed property and took lives. According to Vox, by August, wildfires burned around 6.9 million acres in the United States. Those numbers have continued to grow, with massive fires in Northern California and near Los Angeles this November. One of those, the Camp Fire, was the deadliest in state history, killing at least 84 people. In 2017, wildfires caused around $10 billion in damage. With climate change promising hotter, drier extended fire seasons, it’s important to develop wildfire technologies for an effective disaster response.

Advances in wildfire technologies and disaster communications solutions are helping to optimize efforts and also keep personnel working in dangerous conditions safe.

Satellite and Drone Surveillance

Managing crews on the ground is difficult when fire spreads at alarming speeds. Having a bigger overall picture helps, and this is where observational data from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) helps disaster response. Equipped with an array of sensing equipment, these machines can peer through thick smoke to get an accurate picture.

Wired described how Natural Resources Canada used a fleet of 178 mini satellites nicknamed “Doves” this year to keep tabs from above on the country’s forests this year. The system, which is still in development, relayed observations back to a central monitoring station to alert disaster responders to the location. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also working on a similar system. Orbiting thermal sensors will be able to spot fires once they reach only 35 feet in spread and within 15 minutes of ignition.

Data Sharing

Although it seems a good idea, remote firefighting is not practical. The water bombers and aircraft dropping fire retardant each play a role, but it’s the firefighters on the ground who push wildfires back. Being able to see what is going on at the front line helps manage the overall disaster response, but reports are usually delayed since firefighters often work far from central command. Advances in wildfire technologies help deliver the updates in real time; the San Francisco Chronicle described an app that enables image and text sharing from crews on the ground. Network World reported on helmet cams that bring hands-free front-line imaging back to control rooms. In signal dead spots, Motherboard described how suborbital drones flying above water bomber flight paths act as cell towers in the sky to relay the data.

Emergency response companies are also leveraging the “internet of things” to capture rich data and location information from distressed callers using smartphones or other internet-enabled devices. Northrop Grumman recently integrated RapidSOS NG911 Clearinghouse technology into its computer-aided dispatch products. This provides firefighters and other first responders with advanced location information, letting them respond more quickly, avoiding unnecessary risks and potentially saving more lives.

Wildfire Technologies for Firefighter Safety

From low-tech solutions such as tool design to space tech for shelters, wildfire technologies are advancing to make life easier and safer fighting fires. The San Francisco Chronicle described how simply lengthening the handle of a Pulaski — a tool used to clear vegetation — makes it easier to use so firefighters tire less easily.

NASA-developed tents can also be used as portable fire shelters to help crews on the disaster response front line. Using heat shield technology developed to protect spacecraft during the intense heat of re-entry, firefighters will be able to deploy the shelters when unable to escape the path of a fire.

When smoke is too intense for overhead drones to pierce, infrared sensing picks up hot spots, and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) can map out terrain, according to Digital Journal.

Mitigating Future Impact

Climate change makes wildfires more likely due to change in weather patterns, vegetation growth and parasite infestation. Wildfires contribute to the cycle by releasing carbon stores into the atmosphere. They also release fine particulates in smoke that cause respiratory distress in vulnerable individuals. Effects can be widespread; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that smoke from this year’s wildfires in British Columbia on the west coast of Canada traveled eastwards and was detected as far away as Ireland. Air advisories across the southwestern province kept many indoors from mid-August.

While opinion on preventing wildfires varies, wildfire technologies may play a role in forestry management to reduce fuel sources and urban planning that keeps properties away from risk interfaces. Digital Journal described how LiDAR imaging can map out vegetation and potential fuel sources in and under the forest canopy while satellite information gives information on fire prone and resistant areas. Combining these data with predictive modeling could help both manage forests to minimize fires and also keep people from building in wildfire risk areas.