Wildfires have become bigger, more frequent, and more destructive. The average length of fire season is now about 20 percent longer than it was 35 years ago. In 2017, U.S. wildfires devoured more than 8.7 million acres. Even worse, the annual size of forests consumed is predicted to increase by at least 50 percent by 2050.
Fortunately, there are innovations that have been tipped to transform how these raging fires are fought. Technology has been employed successfully in some hazardous industries such as mining, so it makes sense to use it to counteract the threat of wildfires. Here’s a look at the top technologies that firefighters are equipping themselves with to deal with wildland fires.
Thermal Imaging Devices
NASA started testing thermal imaging devices a few years ago. Today, they’re more readily available. For example, Seek Thermal is a product you can plug into your smartphone to track hotspots. However, the images can be grainy on the compatible app if you move the phone too quickly. This product needs more advanced development for it to be useful in tracking hotspots from an aerial view. However, the device and app can be of some help to the team that’s on the ground during a wildfire cleanup.
Fire Analysis System
In December 2017, The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) turned to WIFIRE to help it combat the Thomas Fire. WIFIRE, a web-based integrated system that helps with fire analysis, uses computational techniques to merge real-time data from sensors and cameras with satellite imagery to come up with a picture of the wildfire, its trajectory, and the surrounding conditions.
Firefighters, as well as residents preparing themselves for evacuation and their worried relatives and friends, used the application to track the wildfires. Thanks to its excellent website, its publicly available fire map was viewed nearly 10 million times. There are different versions of the map on the web — there is one for firefighters and a different one for the public. The map was helpful in tracking the rapid progression of the Thomas Fire as an example.
The unique predictive capabilities of WIFIRE have made the LAFD embrace it. Carlos Calvillo, the department’s commander, describes WIFIRE as an extremely valuable tool. CENIC recognized it due to its role in the containment of California fires.
Wildfires can become so hot that firefighters have to move away from the flames and focus on containing them rather than extinguishing them. The engineers at the Maine-based Howe Technologies have developed a firefighting robot known as Thermite that can withstand extreme wind and heat. Its multidirectional nozzle can spray up to 600 gallons of water a minute.
University of California, Berkeley has designed satellites that can alert firefighters of small wildfires before they become bigger and harder to control. The FUEGO (Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit) project uses satellites that work in conjunction with bespoke software to pinpoint any potentially dangerous fires.
Drones with infrared (IR) cameras then track the progress the fires. If they become significantly larger, the system dispatches ground firefighters and air tankers to the affected location to stop the flames from spreading.
Satellites operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA can supply data on wind speed and direction as well as on an area’s dryness. If applied to the wildfire-fighting industry, this technology can help predict where fires will occur and how fast they’ll spread.
Flying piloted aircraft over wildfires is risking the lives of pilots. Drones, on the other hand, don’t put human life at risk and can fly into areas where manned aircraft can’t. They can be instrumental in putting out fires at night when winds are down, making the blazes easier to control.
The military is already using these remotely piloted devices to fly over specific areas of interest. Drones have also been used to put out fires. In 2013, Predator drones were used to aid firefighters in combating the Rim Fire that was raging in Yosemite National Park. In 2017, drones were used to battle more than 10 fires in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Unfortunately, drones haven’t been widely used for firefighting because they’re still expensive. Many experts envision these unmanned aircraft playing a more significant role in wildfire suppression in the near future. As we continue to see the advancement of technology, drones are likely to become cheaper and more utilized in firefighting.
Virtual Reality (VR)
VR is becoming an essential part of firefighter training. The US Forest Service is using the technology to train smokejumpers. The VR simulators are three-dimensional and have the same characteristics as a parachute in a real-life situation. Trainers can change variables such as wind direction and speed to prepare the jumpers for work in unfavorable conditions.
VR simulators are continually becoming more realistic, helping first-time smokejumpers perfect their landing skills.
Internet of Things (IoT)
Low-powered IoT sensors in specially designed networks are being deployed to collect data from remote places that are potentially wildfire hotspots. They detect indicators of the possible occurrence of fires such as unusually high temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.
It’s also worth nothing that these technologies can only be as good as their accompanying digital technologies. Therefore, people who build them play a crucial role in fighting wildfires. As he/she knows how to make the navigation, load time and functions to its highest standard. That way, both firefighters and residents will quickly and easily get the information they need to locate wildfire and its progress. Otherwise, the accompanying technologies won’t be of much benefit.
Although these technologies help firefighters do their job safely and more effectively while minimizing deaths and damages, they’re yet to be widely adopted due to the numerous tests and costs involved. However, as time goes by and technology advances, firefighters are expected to use these solutions more and more.