In August 2020, hundreds of buildings have been destroyed, close to a million acres of land have been scorched and at least six people have died in one of the worst series of wildfires in California’s history. The fires were sparked by nearly 12,000 lightning strikes in a dry California terrain that hasn’t seen much rain. The “lightning siege” created close to 600 new wildfires, said Jeremy Rahn, a public information officer for Cal Fire. More than 100,000 people face evacuation orders as fires have ravaged over 900,000 acres — an area larger than Rhode Island. The National Guard is providing helicopter support while Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve is supporting the effort with C-130 aircrafts equipped with water tanks to fight the fire from above.
Earlier in 2018, ferocious wildfires devastated several US states including California, which suffered its largest ever wildfire in recorded history. During its rampage, the Mendocino Complex Fire consumed thousands of acres each day (around 459,000 acres in total), destroying nearly 300 buildings and killing one firefighter battling the blaze. The same year, California also saw the deadliest wildfire erupt when Camp Fire destroyed nearly 19,000 structures and killed 85 people. The wildfires, released 68 million tons of carbon dioxide as they incinerated huge swaths of land and destroyed thousands of homes this year. That is roughly the same amount of carbon emissions typically produced to power the entire state for a year, according to a statement from the Interior Department.
Wildfires in Canada and the US burn an average of 54,500 square kilometers (13,000,000 acres) per year. In the United States, there are typically between 60,000 and 80,000 wildfires that occur each year, burning an average of 7 million acres of land each year. 2017 was a record year for wildfires. Across southern Europe, lives were lost and homes destroyed as dry, hot weather and strong winds led to a doubling of the usual number of forest fires; meanwhile, in the US the forest service spent a record $2bn tackling the problem. For the last 10 years, the USFS and Department of Interior have spent a combined average of about $1.5 billion annually on wildfire suppression.
In addition to increasingly large fires, the cost to suppress, contain, and extinguish these fires is increasing. Between about June and October 2015 in Indonesia, more than 100,000 fires burned down millions of hectares of fragile forest lands. There were human and animal fatalities, and the economic damage was estimated to be more than $15bn (£10bn). Over the past few decades, wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer and the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires has increased. Large catastrophic wildfires have become common, especially in association with extended drought and extreme weather. Worldwide damage from wildfires is in the billions of euros annually. Between 1997 and 2008 wild fires scorched 330-431 million hectares of global vegetation each year. That is an area nearly twice the size of Mexico. Disaster fires affect every region of the world and every vegetated biome.
University of Colorado in a study, has warned that communities across the Western U.S. and Canada may have to adapt to living with the ever-increasing threat of catastrophic wildfires as global warming heats up and dries out forests across the West. “Neither suppression nor current approaches to fuels management adequately reduce vulnerability of communities to increasing wildfire,” said the study’s lead author, Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We’ve been very effective with fire suppression for many years, but wildfires are increasing beyond our capacity to control, especially with more people in fire’s way.”
Factors leading to wildfires
Wildfires are ‘quasi-natural’ hazards, meaning that they are not entirely natural features (like volcanoes, earthquakes and tropical storms). This is because they are caused by humans as well. There are many factors that lead to wildfires, the major ones being the presence of fuels, a source of ignition and conducive weather conditions. The four major natural causes of wildfire ignitions are lightning, volcanic eruption, sparks from rockfalls, and spontaneous combustion.
The most common cause of wildfires varies throughout the world. In Canada and northwest China, for example, lightning is the major source of ignition. In the United States and Australia, the source of wildfires can be traced to both lightning strikes and human activities such as machinery sparks and cast-away cigarette butts. About half of all forest fires in Colorado are ignited by lightning. Additionally, many rangeland and grass fires are caused by lightning. Many of these lightning caused wildfires occur in the absence of rain and are the result of what is referred to as “dry” thunderstorms. Lightning is often accompanied by strong winds from thunderstorms. These winds can quickly turn smoldering organic material into a raging fire. Thunderstorm winds tend to be erratic in direction and speed, posing one of the greatest dangers for firefighters.
In other parts of the world, human involvement is a major contributor. In Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Fiji, and New Zealand, wildfires can be attributed to human activities such as animal husbandry, agriculture, and land-conversion burning. Human carelessness is a major cause of wildfires in China and in the Mediterranean Basin. Trees growing near power lines can cause a fire, as well as an electrical, hazard to anyone in contact with the tree at ground level. Trees don’t have to physically touch an energized power line to be dangerous. Electricity can arc from the power line to nearby trees given the right conditions, such as a voltage surge on the line from a nearby lightning strike. This electric current can kill anyone caught near the tree and can cause a fire.
Professor Johann Goldammer, a leading authority on wildfires and director of the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC) at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Chemistry, is in no doubt. He told The Engineer that changing seasonal patterns linked to climate change were producing longer, more severe, fire seasons. “A region like the West Coast of the US is experiencing an increasingly longer fire season that now seems to be all year long,” said Prof Goldammer, adding that this was being compounded by altered patterns of human behaviour. “We are modifying the land by clear cutting, inhabiting, entering, industry, agriculture and so on. With this, the fire regimes and the vulnerabilities of ecosystems are changing.”
Types and Characteristics of Wildfires
Wildfires occur when all of the necessary elements of a fire triangle come together in a susceptible area: an ignition source is brought into contact with a combustible material such as vegetation, that is subjected to sufficient heat and has an adequate supply of oxygen from the ambient air. A high moisture content usually prevents ignition and slows propagation, because higher temperatures are required to evaporate any water within the material and heat the material to its fire point
A wildfire front is the portion sustaining continuous flaming combustion, where unburned material meets active flames, or the smoldering transition between unburned and burned material. As the front approaches, the fire heats both the surrounding air and woody material through convection and thermal radiation.
First, wood is dried as water is vaporized at a temperature of 100 °C (212 °F). Next, the pyrolysis of wood at 230 °C (450 °F) releases flammable gases. Finally, wood can smoulder at 380 °C (720 °F) or, when heated sufficiently, ignite at 590 °C (1,000 °F). Even before the flames of a wildfire arrive at a particular location, heat transfer from the wildfire front warms the air to 800 °C (1,470 °F), which pre-heats and dries flammable materials, causing materials to ignite faster and allowing the fire to spread faster
Wildfires have a rapid forward rate of spread (FROS) when burning through dense, uninterrupted fuels. They can move as fast as 10.8 kilometres per hour (6.7 mph) in forests and 22 kilometres per hour (14 mph) in grasslands. Wildfires can advance tangential to the main front to form a flanking front, or burn in the opposite direction of the main front by backing. They may also spread by jumping or spotting as winds and vertical convection columns carry firebrands (hot wood embers) and other burning materials through the air over roads, rivers, and other barriers that may otherwise act as firebreaks.
Forest fires can usually be divided into three categories as shown in figure. The first is Ground Fires (GF): These occur in the humus and peaty layers beneath the litter of composed material on the forest floor and produce intense heat but practically no flame. Such fires are relatively rare and have been recorded occasionally at high altitudes in Himalayan fir and spruce forests. This kind of fires is the most difficult to detect because they are undetectable until they blaze up. Generally by the time they are detected, the forest undergrowth is already reduced to ashes, killing all the animals that live underground.
Another type of forest fire is Surface Fires (SF): Surface fires, occurring on or near the ground in the litter, ground cover, scrub and regeneration, are the most common type in all fire-prone forests of the Mediterranean countries. In this type, the spread of fire is regular and usually depends on wind speed, and the proper detection method is ABC.
The last type is Crown Fires (CF): occurring in the crowns of trees, consuming foliage and usually killing the trees, these fires occur most frequently in low level coniferous forests. Crown fires the most dangerous fires for a forest, spread rapidly and widely.
Wildfire prevention, detection, and suppression
These increasing trends in wildfire size and federal suppression costs have prompted investigations into alternative methods to help prevent and manage these large wildfires. Strategies of wildfire prevention, detection, and suppression have varied over the years, and international wildfire management experts encourage further development of technology and research.
Wildfires are caused by a combination of natural factors such as topography, fuels and weather. Other than reducing human infractions, only fuels may be altered to affect future fire risk and behavior. Wildfire prevention refers to the preemptive methods of reducing the risk of fires as well as lessening its severity and spread. Effective prevention techniques allow supervising agencies to manage air quality, maintain ecological balances, protect resources, and to limit the effects of future uncontrolled fires. Wildfire prevention programs around the world may employ techniques such as wildland fire use and prescribed or controlled burns. Wildland fire use refers to any fire of natural causes that is monitored but allowed to burn.
One such alternative is fuels management, defined in the USDA Forest Service Manual as the “practice of controlling flammability and reducing resistance to control of wildland fuels through mechanical, chemical, biological or manual means, or by fire, in support of land management objectives” (Mercer, Haight, & Prestemon, 2008). Controlled burns are fires ignited by government agencies under less dangerous weather conditions. Controlled burns are reportedly “the most effective treatment for reducing a fire’s rate of spread, fireline intensity, flame length, and heat per unit of area” according to Jan Van Wagtendonk, a biologist at the Yellowstone Field Station.
Lightning that strikes the ground is usually divided into two categories, negative and positive strikes, depending on the ionic source region of the thunderstorm. The negative strikes are far more common than positive strikes. The positive strikes, however, are more intense and have a longer contact duration to the ground than the negative strikes, and are more likely to ignite a fire. Lightning detection technology
provides land managers and weather forecasters with the ability to identify the general location and charge category of each lightning strike.
National Weather Service forecasters help land managers and firefighters by producing fire weather forecasts on a daily basis. Fire weather “spot” forecasts are also provided for those who work on prescribed burns or specific wildfires. Forecasters also issue red flag warnings for use by land managers when the combination of dry vegetation and critical weather conditions will result in a high potential for the development and spread of wildfires. Land managers, in turn, typically inform the general public of the fire danger in national parks, national forests, and other public lands.
Scientists from ANU have used new space technology to predict droughts and increased bushfire risk up to five months in advance. They used data from multiple satellites to measure water below the Earth’s surface with unprecedented precision, and were able to relate this to drought impacts on the vegetation several months later. The drought forecasts will be combined with the latest satellite maps of vegetation flammability from the Australian Flammability Monitoring System at ANU to predict how the risk of uncontrollable bushfires will change over the coming months.
We’ve been able to use them to detect variations in water availability that affect the growth and condition of grazing land, dryland crops and forests, and that can lead to increased fire risk and farming problems several months down the track.” Co-researcher Professor Albert van Dijk said combining these data with a computer model simulating the water cycle and plant growth enabled the team to build a detailed picture of the water’s distribution below the surface and likely impacts on the vegetation months late
At the Canadian Forest Service’s Northern Forestry Centre headquarters in Edmonton, fire research scientist Kerry Anderson analyses weather information from 2,500 weather stations across North America and data from satellites passing overhead. “We enter that into the Canadian forest fire danger rating system to assess what the values are and what the fire danger is across the country,” he said.
“What is innovative and exciting about our work is that we have been able to quantify the available water more accurately than ever before. This leads to more accurate forecasts of vegetation state, as much as five months in advance.”
Mark Cochrane, a senior scientist at the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University, is using satellites data to determine the best techniques for preventing wildfires. “This information helps us understand how what we’ve done on the landscape affects fires now,” Cochrane told LiveScience. Though it varies by region, forest thinning and prescribed burns — both of which aim to eliminate fire fuel before the fire occurs — seem to be the most effective methods, he said.
Building codes in fire-prone areas typically require that structures be built of flame-resistant materials and a defensible space be maintained by clearing flammable materials within a prescribed distance from the structure.
“According to the Paris Agreement, action on loss and damage could include developing early warning systems, emergency preparedness, and risk insurance. Currently less than half of the countries in the world have a national fire warning system in place. Fire warnings can be used to pre-position fire fighters and equipment, helicopters, and fixed wing air tankers,” write Z. Zommers, United Nations Environment Programme and others.
Predicting Power Failures That Could Lead To Wildfires
Engineers at Texas A&M University have developed the tool, a one-of-a kind diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA). It is a software that interprets variations in electrical current on utility circuits caused by the deteriorating conditions or equipment. It warns utility operators to respond to particular problems before they cause outages and possibly spark fires. The technology was developed by a Texas A&M research team led by B. Don Russell, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, and research professor Carl L. Benner.
Electrical power outages are commonly caused by falling trees tearing down lines or failures of devices such as clamps, switches, conductors and connectors. The devices often deteriorate over weeks or months, impacting electrical current in small ways before an actual failure – perhaps triggered by high winds. DFA continuously monitors current sensors and applies its algorithms to detect and report abnormalities for investigation and repair.
Not only could the DFA technology prevent fires, it would give utility companies a tool to reduce the number and size of pre-emptive power outages, which now are based on dry conditions and weather forecasts. “Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit,” Russell said. “Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball.”
“DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures,” Russell said. “Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits…..DFA does that.”
Fast and effective detection is a key factor in wildfire fighting. A small, high risk area that features thick vegetation, a strong human presence, or is close to a critical urban area can be monitored using a local sensor network. Detection systems may include wireless sensor networks that act as automated weather systems: detecting temperature, humidity, and smoke. These may be battery-powered, solar-powered, or tree-rechargeable: able to recharge their battery systems using the small electrical currents in plant material.
Larger, medium-risk areas can be monitored by scanning towers that incorporate fixed cameras and sensors to detect smoke or additional factors such as the infrared signature of carbon dioxide produced by fires. Additional capabilities such as night vision, brightness detection, and color change detection may also be incorporated into sensor arrays.
One paper proposes a mobile biological sensor system that can assist in early detection of forest fires one of the most dreaded natural disasters on the earth. The main idea presented in this paper is to utilize animals with sensors as Mobile Biological Sensors (MBS). The devices used in this system are animals which are native animals living in forests, sensors (thermo and radiation sensors with GPS features) that measure the temperature and transmit the location of the MBS, access points for wireless communication and a central computer system which classifies of animal actions.
The system offers two different methods, firstly: access points continuously receive data about animals’ location using GPS at certain time intervals and the gathered data is then classified and checked to see if there is a sudden movement (panic) of the animal groups: this method is called animal behavior classification (ABC). The second method can be defined as thermal detection (TD): the access points get the temperature values from the MBS devices and send the data to a central computer to check for instant changes in the temperatures. This system may be used for many purposes other than fire detection, namely animal tracking, poaching prevention and detecting instantaneous animal death.
Satellite and Aerial Monitoring
Satellite and aerial monitoring through the use of planes, helicopter, or UAVs can provide a wider view and may be sufficient to monitor very large, low risk areas. These more sophisticated systems employ GPS and aircraft-mounted infrared or high-resolution visible cameras to identify and target wildfires.
Satellite-mounted sensors such as Envisat’s Advanced Along Track Scanning Radiometer and European Remote-Sensing Satellite’s Along-Track Scanning Radiometer can measure infrared radiation emitted by fires, identifying hot spots greater than 39 °C (102 °F). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hazard Mapping System combines remote-sensing data from satellite sources such as Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES), Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), and Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) for detection of fire and smoke plume locations.
One of the most important is described by Harden et al . Their paper outlines a model which can be readily adapted for analysis of any forest, and has actually been used to examine various fire detection strategies for the Footner Forest in Northern Alberta. Some research is based on image processing techniques, capturing camera segments and processing and classifying these images for fire detection. Using image processing methods, Roy and UNEP have used a satellite for capturing images from forests and, have detected whether there is a fire possibility or not.
Another satellite application in forest fires detection is by Lafarge et al. They present a fully automated method of forest fire detection from TIR satellite images based on the random field theory where preprocessing is used to model the image as a realization of a Gaussian field. This study shows some interesting properties because the fire areas considered to be in the minority are considered as anomalies of that field. Nakau et al. developed a fire detection information system from receiving AVHRR satellite to output fire detection map and validated the early detection algorithm using AVHRR satellite imagery. Forest fires were detected using an algorithm; two-dimensional histogram method by Prof. Kudo.
A further study presents a system called Integral Forest Fire Monitoring System (in Croatian IPNAS). Another study is computer-vision based forest fire detection and monitoring system where fixed cameras are used. Furthermore, there is a great many forest fire detection studies and systems.
However, satellite detection is prone to offset errors, anywhere from 2 to 3 kilometers (1 to 2 mi) for MODIS and AVHRR data and up to 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) for GOES data. Satellites in geostationary orbits may become disabled, and satellites in polar orbits are often limited by their short window of observation time. Cloud cover and image resolution and may also limit the effectiveness of satellite imagery.
In recent fires in canada airborne infrared scanner was used to know where these ground fires are and information is relayed to ground on a map with co-ordinates. “The ground crew can then take those co-ordinates and pinpoint the exact location of underground fires using GPS. The firefighters systematically go through and knock them off,” Wildfire ranger Dan Gorzeman said.
Ollero et al. have studied a scheme using multi-sensorial integrated systems for early detection of forest fires. Several information and data sources in Olleros’s study were used, including infrared images, visual images, data from sensors, maps and models.
Military technology tested to track, map wildfires
This high-powered Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensor technology, used by the military in combat zones for years, is now being tested by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department to help fight wildfires and provide early warning for evacuations.
Linden Blue, chief executive officer of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said the manned aircraft flying at altitudes of 13,000 to 15,000 feet, can stay far above air tankers and firefighting helicopters, smoke plumes and low clouds , collecting video and data, for four to six hours at a time. SAR allows to see through the clouds, smoke, even treetops, to find flames as well as hot soil. After testing the equipment using the plane, Blue said they would like to expand to using an unmanned aircraft.
“This year we’re adding an element that’s going to make our city safer,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. He said the General Atomics senors will “revolutionize the way we attack wildfires,” offering advanced, real-time data. Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said the technology includes the ability to relay communications between dispatchers and firefighters isolated in canyons and even to track the firefighters for their safety. Evacuation warnings could be made more timely with mapping that shows precisely which way flames are moving.
Drones offer a variety of advantages to fire departments and decision makers on the ground. They can get to places that winged aircraft can’t and allow agencies to reduce risk by removing human pilots from dangerous situations. They can fly over the fire for much longer.
Before a fire ever starts, drones can be used to survey at-risk areas to provide topographical information and details about vegetation encroachment. During a fire, thermal sensors onboard the aircraft can cut through the smoke and provide information about how intense the flames are and which direction the fire is moving.
Firefighters are using information gathered by the drone to guide the allocation of firefighting resources on the ground to where they are most needed. The aerial view also reveals the location of critical infrastructure such as power lines, gas lines and water systems in the fire’s path.
Dirk Giles, the unmanned aircraft systems program manager at the United States Forestry Service, said the growth in drone technology over the last six years has been tremendous. And he’s seen first hand how replacing pilots in the air with pilots on the ground has made the job safer. “From a safety standpoint, now we can do it in the smoke, at night. We have teams that are flying almost 24 hours a day now,” said Giles.
Mercer is the principal investigator for the Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations, or STEReO, project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. His team is designing software and communication tools to help disaster responders work more safely and efficiently. Part of their approach is to scale up the use of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, also called drones.
Drones are good for capturing thermal images of the landscape below, for example. The heat signatures obtained can help determine where firefighters should establish fire-containment lines, dug either by bulldozer or by hand.
On the frontlines of the Dixie fire, a drone was sent to look for any traces of fire down a steep gully. The thermal data it collected helped decide whether crews could safely attempt to hold the fire there, or if they should work from the next ridgeline, even if it meant losing more acres to the flames.
Decisions like these were occurring all over the wildfire zone, under rapidly changing conditions. “It really speaks to how critical information is in their decision making,” said Mercer, “and the timing of when that information becomes available to the various decision makers has a huge impact on the overall operation.”
“If you can put a camera up in the air that can detect heat, and can relay that information back to firefighters on the ground or to command centers, then you’re really ahead of the game,” explained KSI CEO Jon Gaster. Gaster said that a handful of departments around the U.S. and Europe are currently demoing KSI’s platform, which is known as “Mission Keeper.” Having the information from the drones is one thing, but KSI is also working on artificial intelligence applications that analyze video feeds frame by frame to synthesize and present data from the air to command centers on the ground in a format that’s easier to understand and use.
An integrated approach of multiple systems can be used to merge satellite data, aerial imagery, and personnel position via Global Positioning System (GPS) into a collective whole for near-realtime use by wireless Incident Command Centers
Once a wildfire gets going, containing the blaze is the immediate priority. The standard response includes fire trucks (and related equipment), ground crews, bulldozers and aircraft. On the ground, firefighters lay down fire hoses along the fire’s edge, every 100 feet (30 meters) or so. Then firefighter crews or bulldozers create what’s known as a firebreak or fire line around the perimeter of the blaze, a strip of land or trench where any potential fuel — such as dry brush or grass — has been removed.
“We don’t want the fire to come out of that area, and the only way to do that is to remove any fuel,” Julie Hutchinson, said battalion chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). Aircraft play an important role, too. Helicopters fly over and dump water or sometimes suppressant foam on fire hotspots. The foam acts as insulation to prevent unburned fuels from catching fire. Silver iodide can be used to encourage snow fall, while fire retardants and water can be dropped onto fires by unmanned aerial vehicles, planes, and helicopters.
A wide variety of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are used: from small, modified agricultural sprayers (so-called single-engine air tankers) able to drop around 3,000 litres (793 US gallons), through to much larger aircraft that carry retardant in huge tanks mounted on their bellies. The undisputed monster of this curious backwater of the aerospace sector is the Global SuperTanker, a modified jumbo jet able to carry almost 73,000 litres (19,200 US gallons) of retardant. The aircraft, the only one of its kind, grabbed the headlines late last year when it was used to combat the wildfires in southern California.
Fixed wing aircraft called air tankers fly over the blaze dumping flame retardant chemicals, such as ammonium phosphate
Fire retardants are used to help slow wildfires, coat fuels, and lessen oxygen availability as required by various firefighting situations. They are composed of nitrates, ammonia, phosphates and sulfates, as well as other chemicals and thickening agents. The choice of whether to apply retardant depends on the magnitude, location and intensity of the wildfire.
Fire retardants are used to reach inaccessible geographical regions where ground firefighting crews are unable to reach a wildfire or in any occasion where human safety and structures are endangered. In certain instances, fire retardant may also be applied ahead of wildfires for protection of structures and vegetation as a precautionary fire defense measure.
The application of aerial fire retardants creates an atypical appearance on land and water surfaces and has the potential to change soil chemistry. Aerial uses of fire retardant are required to avoid application near waterways and endangered species (plant and animal habitats).
Complete fire suppression is no longer an expectation, but the majority of wildfires are often extinguished before they grow out of control. While more than 99% of the 10,000 new wildfires each year are contained, escaped wildfires can cause extensive damage.
Night Vision Systems
In many ways the conditions at night-time are ideal for firefighting: reduced temperatures, increased humidity and often lighter winds cause fires to ‘stand down’, providing a window of opportunity for crews on the ground. Surprisingly, though, very little night-time firefighting takes place, with the advantages of more favourable conditions often outweighed by concerns over poor visibility and, consequently, an increased risk of collision.
Night-vision systems similar to those used by the military seem to be a ready-made solution here. However, according to Bob Gann, acting director at the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, these technologies struggle with the contrast between darkness and the glare of a fire, and his team is investigating the application of augmented reality (AR) technology specially optimised for firefighting.
Robots : Thermite
Fire-fighting bots such as Thermite, developed by Howe and Howe Tech, are remote-controlled machines with multi-directional nozzles backed by pumps that deliver up to 600 gallons of water per minute. These robots help first respondents by reducing the flames, enabling firefighters to get reach otherwise hostile environments after industrial, nuclear and chemical fires.
DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) Technology for battling Wildfires
DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program seeks to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness by enabling soldiers and combat aircrews to share real-time situational awareness, and weapons system data and reduce engagement time to as little as six minutes. DARPA collaborated with firefighters to test the potential value of PCAS technology for these public servants who face challenges when battling wildfires similar to those that troops face in battle—the need for situational awareness, precise coordination of airborne water drops and ensuring fellow firefighters are kept safe from rapidly moving and shifting flames.
They developed Fire Line Advanced Situational Awareness for Handhelds (FLASH) prototype system that includes a ruggedized tablet computer and MANET-capable radio that firefighters and other responders can wear, freeing their hands for other tasks in the field. The system overlays multiple streams of information from airborne sensors, firefighters and fire command posts onto a shared digital map visible via tablet computers.
The demonstration took place near where 19 firefighters from the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hot Shots unit gave their lives on June 30, 2013, battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire. The demonstration used Mobile Ad Hoc Networking (MANET) capable tactical radio of Persistent Systems, LLC. Whatever goes into the radio, goes out everywhere on the network of nodes that make up the MANET. Users can tether mobile computers, cameras and sensors to the nodes to exchange video feeds, positional data, and, with the push of a button, voice to everyone on the network. The MANET forms automatically, routes data fast, and can grow and shrink as users move in and out of radio range. All of this happens without a central point of control.
California Wildfires: Army Corps rebuilds lives with GIS Technology
In October of 2017, numerous, fast- moving wildfires erupted and burned throughout Northern California, including Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, Solano, Yuba and Butte counties. Over 245,000 acres of land was burned, there were 43 casualties and over 10,000 structures were destroyed or damaged. California fires created the largest debris cleanup in California’s history since the 1906 San Francisco 7.9 Earthquake that struck the coast of Northern California. The Federal Emergency Management Agency called upon the Army Corps to execute the massive debris removal mission.
To assist with the debris removal process, GIS information was used by decision makers in every stage of the mission to perform environmental assessments, debris hauling, and the final cleanup. Debris hauling route maps were created that provided the Army Corps and CalRecycle with the most efficient and safest routes around difficult terrain to navigate dumpster trucks and excavators. GIS is a computer-based tool used for capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying location information. The tool inputs data from various sources, such as aerial photography, and combines these layers of information in various ways to perform analysis and create maps.
CalRecycle greatly appreciated their work. Todd Thalhamer, Operations Chief, CalRecycle said, “The GIS system used by the Army Corps was critical in planning the incident and determining resource allocation. Our team worked with the Army Corps to identify where the burned structures were located in each county, the proximity to environmental receptors, location of schools, and to develop an overall plan for the deployment of resources.” He continued, “In a disaster of this size – over three counties – it was critical to have the most current Intel on where the impacted structures where located.”
Future technologies: Unmanned Ground Vehicles
The military has developing autonomous unmanned ground vehicles which can navigate on all kinds of terrains and which can carry variety of payloads including day night all weather surveillance, are expected to assist firemen in battle to prevent and contain wildfires. Canada used the all-terrain carrier called a Hägglund easily stores all the gear firefighters need to tackle any situation and rumbles effortlessly on its huge tracks over toppled trees, through thick mud and streams.
The British military has commissioned a hackathon to develop drone swarms . A partnership between Britain’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and America’s Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) invites the public to “develop new and innovative ways to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to assist the emergency services to deal with wildfires”.
The predominant focus of the challenge is how organisations can plan complex UAS search and rescue missions, assisting emergency services that have finite resources in terms of manpower, equipment and funding. This hackathon will revolve around mapping and tracking wildfires – utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning algorithms – and will assume that improved mission planning has the potential to minimise damage and prevent fatalities.
“The hackathon will explore innovative ways to plan missions using multiple systems to assist in the identification and prediction of how wildfires will spread and subsequently find preventative solutions, minimise damage and save lives,” said DSTL in a statement issued today. It said those taking part would “use a range of collaboration platforms to explore different fire scenarios with an increasing level of complexity, working with experts from the Fire Service, DSTL and the wider Ministry of Defence”.
Teams are encouraged to look at developing “robust and resilient” autonomy for their swarms that can cope with the unexpected, collaborative behaviour that makes the best use of individual drones’ capabilities, predicting fire and how it spreads to better support firefighting missions, and considering the users’ priorities and real-world complexities of operating drones around wildfires. The competition doesn’t involve any actual live flying, however, because the United States Air Force has provided a Java-based multi-UAV mission simulation suite called AMASE.
Big data and Social Media
Big data is already being used to understand and predict wildfire spread. Further into the future, artificial intelligence playing a larger role to fight fires on the ground will become commonplace.
“Crowdsourced information pulled from social media has been seen as a helpful tool to identifying the spread of wildfires and helping to deploy forces. Monitoring social posts for mentions or pictures of fire or smoke from at-risk locations could be an important data stream, thus creating an early warning system when wildfires start or spread. This could become particularly useful, given the increasing number of people choosing to live in and around the periphery of at-risk land,” writes Joe Cecin in techcrunch.
Wildfire Propagation Model
Wildfire modeling is concerned with numerical simulation of wildfires in order to comprehend and predict fire behavior. Wildfire modeling can ultimately aid wildfire suppression, increase the safety of firefighters and the public, and minimize damage. Using computational science, wildfire modeling involves the statistical analysis of past fire events to predict spotting risks and front behavior. Modern growth models utilize a combination of past ellipsoidal descriptions and Huygens’ Principle to simulate fire growth as a continuously expanding polygon.
At the Canadian Forest Service’s Northern Forestry Centre headquarters in Edmonton, fire research scientist Kerry Anderson, also monitor fires that are burning and try to predict where they’ll go next using computer models to spread a forest fire into the future. These models provide a snapshot of the fire’s potential, Hutchinson said. “Where it becomes important is when you start having multiple fires in a state, and you’re having to allocate resources,” she added.
Need for Fire risk management maps
“With data on fire ignitions, weather, vegetation and topography, we can build models to demonstrate how we expect a region to burn should it catch fire. These can show two things that are important to guide policy: the probability of burning, and the likely fire intensity. The first shows the chances of a fire taking hold, and the second indicates how severe the consequences will be,” writes Marc-André Parisien in Nature.
“These maps show which areas, if they ignite, will burn at such a high temperature that attempts to fight the fire will never succeed. The only option is to evacuate, or not to live there in the first place. The maps can also identify parts of the forest where, because of the nature of the landscape and flora, fire would be easier to prevent and tackle. This knowledge can be used to allocate money and effort to places where mitigation is more likely to work.”
“Continued human expansion into the Canadian boreal forest for natural-resource extraction and housing is inevitable. Risk-assessment maps can guide this new development and direct it to low-risk areas. Some of these places are obvious: new settlements could take advantage of natural firebreaks such as large lakes to help shield them.” “We’re losing homes in fires because homes are being put into hazardous conditions,” said Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist with the U.S Geological Survey (USGS). “The important thing is not to blame it on the fire event, but instead to think about planning and reduce putting people at risk.”
“Ultimately, if our climate is changing, human systems must also change. Urban areas are expanding at a relentless pace. For communities to be truly sustainable, all of our systems―building codes, insurance policies, market-based incentives, community planning and early warning systems―must change to reduce risks. We need to have better ecosystem services management, and it needs to be integrated into a coordinated suite of policies that sustain human settlements in dangerously shifting conditions. Only then can we “dampen” loss and damage,” write Z. Zommers, United Nations Environment Programme and others.
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