CA fires 2008

Experts call for tech upgrades to help fight wildfires

Image credit: Dreamstime

The latest fires in California show that rich western developed nations lack the technology to battle them. New approaches are needed.

The state of California was overwhelmed by wildfires this year. Although fires happen every year, it could be a decisive factor to influence how Americans vote in November’s US general election.

A month before the official wildfire season started, more than 2.5 million acres (10,000km2) burned prematurely. The peak of the fire season normally occurs around November, but by 30 August the area burned was observed to be 35 times higher than last year.

Climate change makes fires less predictable. The fires themselves are a fairly normal and annual spectacle in and around the Golden State. But their timing, their extent and the impact on local residents are all far from normal.

Climate change and dryer conditions help to desiccate the ground, making it more susceptible to fires and air pollution that affects regions in and around fire zones. The latter comes in the form of carbon monoxide (CO) clouds that - depending on the wind conditions – can move as far as across the ocean, affecting residents in Europe (see graphic).

Air pollution from California fires

Image credit: E&T, Copernicus

Making accurate short-term predictions has always been tough. Technology is improving but more research is needed. Forecasting models improve only incrementally. One Australian study tinkered with the accuracy of fire prediction models and highlighted the value of ‘continuous improvement’. More data definitely helps. To do a sufficient job in producing models for continental America, vast amounts of historical records are required.

One 2018 paper used 30 years-worth of wildfire records and meteorological and housing data. The study pinned down the strongest factors for wildfire risk and spread. Dryness and air temperature were the most telling predictors. A weaker role was played by precipitation and housing density in the analysis.

Many different technologies are used to fight wildfires, including drones, robotics, VR and IoT. But where do experts see potential for improvements? What new technology is most needed in the mix that experts currently need but lack?

Improvements in remote sensing tech would be a quick win. Satellites provide instantaneous results but are far from perfect. Mark Parrington, a senior scientist in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), says the problem is that current satellites only give a snapshot of two observing times. Experts miss out on a large fraction of the cycle of fire activity that occur in between, he says. Satellites that observe Earth at different times during the day could then fill in the blanks and provide more details on how fires progress. 

Predicting seasonal fires months ahead of time seems even more difficult: “We are not quite there yet”, Parrington says. He explains that local factors matter, whether analysing Arctic wildfires in Russia or fires occurring in Indonesia. Under El Nino conditions and the right modes, Parrington explains, we know we will see more fires in Indonesia. Such findings definitely help.

As predictions remain a tough nut to crack there is a call to improve management and monitoring of fires. Real-time information technology presents a business opportunity, argues Björn Stoffers, co-founder of Munich based firm OroraTech. The start-up mixes real-time conventional data sources with a user-friendly dashboard solution to improve the response to wildfires.

New platform to track fires in real time

Image credit: Ororatech, E&T

“We see our system as complementary. We don't want fire services to get rid of their helicopters, drones and camera systems”, Stoffers says. Instead, the company focuses on offering remote sensing data. In addition to data from twelve different satellites in geostationary and low earth orbit, OroraTech plans to launch its own nanosatellites – 100 of them in the next five years. This will help in two ways: in the early detection of fires and for the live fire monitoring services the firm offers its clients.

The young company is part of the Google Accelerator for Startups programme addressing sustainable development goals. “Google folks in California are absolutely fascinated by the system right now”. It’s is already used in British Columbia, Canada and in New South Wales, Australia – both nations suffering wildfire hotspots.

Another reason why the firm’s technology might be a seller is that there is enough incentive to protect fire-prone areas. The largest wildfires cost the US taxpayer billions of dollars and the bills are growing, especially so for the largest wildfires (see charts).

Cost stats US firefighters

Image credit: Ben Heubl, E&T

Public policies under the Trump administration have further affected fire-control measures. It has caused plenty of criticism that the Republican candidate doesn’t need right now. The response to the fires by President Trump, who pulled the country out of the Paris climate agreement, moved further into the limelight of the election race when Joe Biden, the Democrat candidate in the race, called Trump a “climate arsonist”.

Trump's response included a statement in which he claimed that science doesn’t know what is actually happening. Biden’s response to the fires was to promise to boost federal resources for states affected by climate change.

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