Wildfires are becoming an increasingly threatening challenge. Driven by climate change, fire weather season is now almost 20% longer than it was just four decades ago. In 2020 alone, there were 58,950 wildfires in the US, burning over 10 million acres of land. This caused more than $17 billion in losses and damaged 25,790 structures, 70% of which were residences. While California and the West are hit the hardest, just about every state within the U.S. has wildland fires.
The problem is not going away. As wildland fire researcher Mike Flannigan put it, “the future is smokey”. No doubt, we need to find better ways to manage and control these fires to protect our Earth, our communities, and our first responders.
So how can technology help? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are five cutting edge technologies that are making a significant impact on our ability to fight wildfires.
Drones: Reach Higher and Lower
Drones have been revolutionary for firefighting for a few reasons. They can replace human efforts which are more limited, more time consuming and ultimately, more dangerous. When equipped with thermal imaging cameras, drones can also be highly effective at night, when the human eye may struggle to interpret its surroundings.
According to Scott Colefax of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia, using drones allowed his team to achieve 50% more assessments in a given day than what ground crews could accomplish. Flying at much lower altitudes than manned aircraft, drones can get a lot closer to assets and gather much more detailed information. That proximity to the ground enabled Colefax and his team to double the amount of hotspots discovered compared to aircraft surveillance.
Drones can also be fitted with various attachments that can do even more while in flight. Dragon Eggs containing potassium permanganate are dropped strategically over active wildfires to ignite “backburns” (smaller fires started to burn up materials that could fuel larger fires). Assisted by artificial intelligence, drone pilots can get exceptionally precise in their targeting.
Satellites: Mapping From Space
Satellites have become instrumental in mapping wildfire activity in recent years, supporting early detection and smoke pattern prediction. In 2017, NASA launched a program called FireSat, which significantly increased the speed and frequency in which images are captured and greatly reduced response times. In fact, FireSat satellites can detect wildfires as early as 15 minutes after they start.
The FUEGO program (Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit), run by the University of California Berkeley, combines drones and satellites for early detection of wildfires. This type of information and the speed in which it’s received greatly increases ground crews’ ability to fight these fires.
According to Jenny Marder of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, it is “not uncommon for an Earth-observing satellite to be the first to detect a wildfire, especially in remote regions like the Alaskan wilderness. And at the height of the fire season, when there are more fires than planes to map them, data from satellites are used to estimate the fire’s evolution, capturing burned areas, the changing perimeter and potential damage, like in the case of Montana’s Howe Ridge Fire, which burned for nearly two months in Glacier National Park last summer.”
Mobile Devices: Harnessing Built-In GPS
Our partners at ESRI have developed a technology called Collector, harnessing the power of mobile devices and the built-in GPS they are equipped with. The application allows firefighters to download and access maps offline. When they re-enter a service area, all their data is automatically uploaded into the GIS server.
This type of technology is incredibly accurate, allowing for up-to-the-centimeter pinpointing when using a professional-grade or high-accuracy GPS receiver. Field crews can also upload photos, videos, or audio recordings that flow directly into the same cloud software used in their command center, creating streamlined efficiencies and shared visibility for all roles.
Internet of Things (IoT): Install and Monitor
Implementing IoT devices has been a gamechanger for many fire departments worldwide. IoT sensors can be installed on a myriad of structures where wildfires are prone, providing early detection that enables faster evacuation and timely response. As they rely on low power wide area (LPWA) or even cellular networks, keeping them connected is relatively easy.
Teams can also attach these sensors onto their gear, or integrate this technology into existing alarm systems they carry. Possibly the most valuable source of information for a fire captain on the scene is the precise location of all his firefighters on the ground. Couple that with the real-time data and video footage they provide, and you have a huge leg up in being able to guide your team to fight effectively, and then back out safely.
These devices can also be affixed to sprinkler systems and other monitoring systems to detect temperature spikes, monitor for carbon monoxide emissions, or measure CO2 levels. They can be programmed to automatically trigger a release upon tracking a certain reading threshold, presenting a promising opportunity to detect and suppress fires before they even start.
Putting It All Together In Real Time
While these technologies are all powerful in and of themselves, integrating multiple technologies in real-time can provide even greater benefits. For example, being able to instantly clarify complex operational environments by layering accurate geo-tagging data on top of real-time aerial video footage is invaluable. This kind of speed and accuracy of data, not to mention accessibility, saves lives.
In a recent webinar hosted at Google Australia, Scott Colefax, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and EdgyBees CEO, Adam Kaplan reviewed some of the benefits of this solution. According to Colefax, “the real hook for me with EdgyBees was its capability for me to put the drone up to 400 feet, touch the screen where I see something that interests me and turn that into a 2-dimensional ponti that I can lay down onto a map.” Colefax pointed out that he could, in fact, do this himself, but it would take him 5-10 minutes. “EdgyBees enables us to do this in real time, synchronizing up into the cloud and into a platform that our Incident Management Team can see.”
We at EdgyBees believe that technology can dramatically improve the effectiveness of fighting wildfires around the world. Our experience shows that investing in technology to empower firefighters today can save lives tomorrow. As Colefax said, “technology can actually make a difference. That for us is kind of groundbreaking.”