As the earth continues to warm, more nations are experiencing wildfires. last year has seen fires in Turkey, Greece, and Spain, while a wildfire in Hawaii last month claimed at least 115 lives and completely destroyed the town of Lahaina. A record-breaking wildfire season has scorched more than 15 million hectares in Canada. There, officials are carefully examining the limitations of conventional firefighting techniques.
In Europe, the fastest-warming continent due to climate change, firefighters are exploring new ways to battle monster blazes. Emergency and disaster management crews are deploying drones than can detect fires earlier and are even reviving traditional practices such as using sheep and goats to graze the grass.
Here are some of the more innovative wildfire solutions:
Drones are becoming ubiquitous on the front line.
Domingos Xavier Viegas, a professor at the Coimbra University in Portugal who specializes in wildland fire behavior, says departments across Europe are using drone technology to map vegetation, identify high-risk areas, track wildfires, collect data and deliver last-mile water deposits during wildfires. Larger drones, some of them amphibious, are also being developed to act as aerial tankers or hose bearers. These firefighting robots can spray water and fire-retardant chemicals over longer distances and larger areas.
This can also save the lives of firefighters who otherwise have to get “so close to the fires,” says Kenneth Geipel, founder of Danish drone company Robotto Co. Geipel started Robotto in 2019 after seeing the devastation left by record wildfires in Sweden, Greece and California a year earlier. He felt firefighters lacked the data needed to map and tackle blazes at the earliest stages.
While satellite imagery comes with delays, drones can in real time identify smoke or heat signatures, warn fire control authorities and calculate the position, size and intensity of a blaze, Geipel says.
All of this new information requires more data-processing. Drone sensors capture more data than is humanly possible to process in real time without using AI tools, Geipel says.
In 2022, the World Economic Forum launched an AI and machine learning initiative called FireAId. The pilot project, started in Turkey in the wake of the country’s worst-ever wildfires in 2021, showed these tools can reduce response time and risk to firefighters.
Training regimens for firefighters are also getting more high-tech and more collaborative as departments in different countries compare best practices.
In Catalonia, the Pau Costa Foundation has created a three-dimensional system that allows trainees and fire teams to run through emergency wildfire scenarios. This so-called “digital sandbox” helps students to visualize the behavior of a forest fire and practice fire-management strategies, preparation that can be particularly helpful for firefighters in northern European countries.
“It’s something that major cosmopolitan cities like London had never experienced before,” says Sami Goldbrom, a group commander at the London Fire Brigade (LFB). “But it looks likely that we’re going to be experiencing them for the foreseeable future.”
England saw its worst wildfire season last year: July 19, 2022, was LFB’s busiest day since World War II. The LFB has since set up training connections with Australia, Greece and Spain.
The best way to tackle wildfires is to prevent them in the first place. That’s why selective culling of trees and smaller plants is an important aspect of reducing wildfire risk.
Enter vegetation-clearing robots, which can remove potential wildfire fodder. Such devices are being developed and will work alongside drones, Viegas says. The drones map out the high-risk areas from above, and the mechanical foot soldiers weed out vegetation in those patches.
Until vegetation-clearing robots become more commercially viable, some fire-management bodies are relying on an age-old pastoral technique: inviting sheep and goats to do the same job.
In Catalonia, so-called Fire Flocks – sheep or goats that graze on forest floors to clean up vegetation – are making a comeback. A project to revive this tradition was initiated in 2016, starting with a small pilot of just 48 hectares in the Baix Emporda region of Catalonia. By 2022, it had expanded to 651 hectares.
Catalonia is one of the few places on the planet where fire-prevention measures have reversed an increase in blazes, according to Marc Castellnou, a wildland fire incident commander and analyst with the Catalan Fire Service. During the 1990s, about 13,500 hectares burned in wildfires every year – roughly 1% of the region’s forests, he says. Since then it has fallen to between 1,200 and 1,500 hectares each year, on average.
But even the best mitigation strategies don’t negate the urgency of curbing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent fire risk from getting even worse. “If a fire has a burning power of more than 10,000 kilowatts per square meter, it can’t be extinguished no matter how many resources we put in,” Castellnou says. Some of Europe’s wildfires in recent years have hit six times that intensity.
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