Wildfire Tech

As climate change charges forth in the 21st century, it’s apparent that many places are due to become hotter and drier. Studies show this to be the case in North America, Europe, and Australia, among others. One thing that all those places share is many, many years of rigorous fire protection and prevention practices in forests and wildlands. The problem with this becomes readily apparent when one considers the Fire Triangle, a staple of fire suppression education – That’s Oxygen, Fuel, and an Ignition source – The three things required for fire to thrive; and wildfires are definitely thriving these days – That’s where wildfire tech comes in.

Those decades of stringent fire suppression have brought to light a couple of very serious problems. First, fuel loading has increased radically; this is a measure of fuel volume, recorded as tons per acre when fire suppression plans are being formulated. The higher the fuel loading figure, the hotter a potential fire will burn. In areas where fire has been suppressed long term, fuel loading figures are alarmingly high. Secondly, fuel moisture comes in to play; even heavy fuel loads can be overcome from a suppression standpoint, if fuel moisture is relatively high. With temperatures on the rise and drought conditions ever widening, fuel moistures are in fact, at an all time low in far too many places.

These things spell trouble for the troops on the ground, for they are, in the end run, what’s required to fight most wildland fires. While there are retardant bombers, water dropping helicopters, and heavy equipment tasked to cut fire line, the bulk of suppression work still falls squarely on the shoulders of the men and woman armed with Pulaski, shovel, McLeod, and chain saw. They are the ones who dig the fire lines, mop up hot spots, and assess the status of a fire as it progresses. In the very real sense of the word, their lives depend on effective, coordinated firefighting strategy, and that demands timely, accurate information about what a fire is doing.    

Fires born under the conditions outlined above are not like they were in the good old days of wildland Fire suppression; extremely heavy fuel loads and unprecedented low fuel moisture, coupled with hot dry conditions leads to extremes, massive fires that generate their own weather and grow exponentially with incredible violence – wrap your head around 1000 acres, 400 hectares of heavily forested land – Now envision that going up in flames literally as fast as you can light a whole box of matches on fire, and you have some idea of the volatility. Under such conditions, old or erroneous data about fire and weather behavior means the people the ground are at grave risk. Thankfully, this aspect of fire suppression technology is exactly where recent advances have stepped in to offer some timely updates.

In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) is the primary agency involved in wildland fire suppression, planning, and management. Recently, the USFS has partnered with NASA, employing data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite; that data is coupled with cutting-edge computer modeling to provide state of the art fire behavior prediction. Predicting fire and localized weather has been a challenge since organized wildland firefighting came into being. Computer modeling has improved notably, but it’s still a fundamental challenge. UC Berkeley fire behavior researcher Max Moritz explains that “Computationally, it’s a pretty complex and intensive problem. This is basically like fluid dynamics. You have a wind stream going across topography in three dimensions.” Vastly improved modeling, such as that coupled with high resolution Suomi imagery, has allowed quite accurate modeling to a scale never before achieved, as small as several hundred meters on a side. 

The U.S. National Interagency Fire Center has also launched the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, an online system that blends real time data with fire behavior models and weather forecasts to provide fire command staff in the field with the information they need to safely and effectively fight fire.

While all of these tools are a great help to a very tough job, the fact remains that the intensity and breadth of wildfire these days is a direct result of decades of over protection. Fire is a natural occurring phenomenon, and in many instances, a necessary part of a given environment. As UC Davis researcher Moritz aptly notes, “We don’t fight earthquakes and floods — we coexist with them. We need to learn to do the same with wildfires.”