New Technology Aims to Limit the Damage of Wildfires on the U.S. West Coast
PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA
An aerial view of a wildfire in the U.S. state of California in 2018
California, USA endured one of the worst wildfire seasons in the state’s history in 2017, when more than 1.2 million acres (485,600 hectares) burned. Last year proved worse. Not only did 1.6 million acres (647,500 hectares) burn—the most in 15 years—but the Camp Fire blaze killed 86 people, the deadliest fire in the state’s history. As global temperatures rise and droughts continue, various organizations are exploring how new technology can combat a future in which wildfires are only expected to worsen.
Public and private organizations in high-risk areas are sponsoring projects to develop and deploy tools that can provide earlier and more accurate information when wildfires hit. In the past, firefighters have had to rely on spotty reports from emergency calls and commercial flights. With access to earlier intelligence, firefighters might better mitigate and prevent damage.
California utility company PG&E is sponsoring a project to install 600 cameras around Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, with the hope that the network will help firefighters understand where fires are and how they are moving. (PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January after facing hundreds of lawsuits and potentially more than US$30 billion in liabilities for past wildfires.) An earlier pilot phase of the project, which installed two cameras last year, helped allay fears in the town of Lucerne. When maps couldn’t accurately pinpoint the true perimeter of a fire, firefighters used the cameras to advise the Lucerne residents that they weren’t at risk. NASA, meanwhile, is exploring an alternative that could scan areas and identify fires much more quickly than existing satellite technology. Satellites can already sense the heat signature of a fire but must beam the images down to earth so a supercomputer can process the information. The current process takes three hours—far too long when life and death hang in the balance. NASA is developing a project that will use artificial intelligence to enable the satellites to process images on board and transmit information back to earth nearly instantaneously.
But developing sophisticated technology is only the first step in enhancing fire prevention. Project teams must get stakeholders to adopt and use the tools—no easy task with lives at stake.
Janice Coen, PhD, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, USA, says several factors influence stakeholder reluctance. Dr. Coen is collaborating with other organizations to develop a computer model that simulates fire-driven weather. Using the same combination of mathematics and fluid dynamics already used in weather forecasting, Dr. Coen is researching how heat from fires changes the way air moves around wildfires, which ultimately influences their movement. She hopes the tool will one day be used in the field during wildfires, but generating buy-in from fire agencies has proven challenging.
“The high stakes of lives at risk limits experimentation,” Dr. Coen says. “If a firefighting entity sticks its neck out by trying something new, what if a bad prediction causes harm? Who would be blamed?” To help overcome that, she has met with fire department representatives and shown them the technology firsthand. There’s risk on her team’s end as well. “As developers, we also have risks—overconfidence and overselling the skill of models can discredit the whole research area, setting it back for decades.”
—Janice Coen, PhD, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA
There are also concerns about creating conflicting streams of information in a crisis. If two fire agencies use different technology for the same fire, they may have different forecasts. New technology also means new training and the development of new skills—all things that stakeholders may balk at, she says. That’s why securing buy-in from all the appropriate agencies for cutting-edge technology is key.
However, Dr. Coen sees the landscape of fire prediction changing quickly. Losses have been so high, and people increasingly believe today’s fires are less predictable with current tools, she says. “This perception of increasing danger and maybe even helplessness to impact these fire events once they have become large has created more interest in adopting new technology.”—Ashley Bishel