As global temperatures continue to rise, more countries face devastating wildfires. How can we better contain and prevent them?
The summer of 2022 will be remembered for extraordinary heat around the world. In Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, temperatures have broken records – and with heatwaves have come raging wildfires. One of the worst affected places in Europe has been Portugal, where July saw unprecedented temperatures of 47C (116.6F), and over 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of land have been destroyed by fire since the start of 2022. Neighbouring Spain has lost 200,000 hectares of land, with 2,150 hectares destroyed in just one week on the island of Tenerife.
In London, 40C temperatures saw multiple fires break out across the city. France, Croatia, Turkey and Morocco have all witnessed similar devastation. The first six months of 2022 saw four more times land burnt in Europe than the annual average from 2006-2021, according to the European Forest Fire Information System. In the US, California and Colorado, western states usually associated with wildfires have experienced them on a far more intense scale. More than 38,000 wildfires have been recorded so far in the US, the highest since 2018 – and we are only just over halfway through the year. What can be done to stem this growing threat to people, property and the natural world?
Basic firefighting methods have changed little in decades, but they are increasing in intensity and scope. On the ground, firefighting work is manual, brutal and exhausting, depleting areas of vegetation down to the soil to stop the spread of fire, a technique known as fire lines. Modern trenching machinery means heavier equipment such as bulldozers can be used to make fire lines quickly, requiring less manpower. A new generation of all-terrain water tenders has also been developed to fight forest fires more efficiently.
Practical on-the-ground firefighting techniques include making the forest more fire-resistant including “thinning” forests with selective logging to reduce fuel for wildfires. This has been met with some resistance from the lumber industry and environmentalists, who see it as a back door for the logging industry.
In the air, helicopters and tanker aircraft are used to drop water and retardants. The Global Supertanker, a Boeing 747-400 that is the largest VLAT (Very Large Airtanker), is capable of dropping over 85,000 litres (19,000 gallons) of water on to wildfires and can fill 10 liquid tanks in under 30 minutes. It can release its cargo from only 200 feet above the surface, increasing its effectiveness.
In parts of both the US and Australia, fighting wildfires has meant going to back to the future to revive thousands of year-old cultural burning techniques practiced by indigenous cultures and later suppressed by modern firefighting regulations. It involves lighting low-intensity fires, which burn up the fuels in the forest to control the spread of any wildfires, and allowing vegetation to regenerate. Some plants have even evolved in tandem with such practices, and the smoke generated is also thought to help cool water – through suppressing solar radiation – aiding fish populations.
Though fighting fire with fire might sound alarming, according to the US Forest Service 99.8% of all prescribed (cultural) burns stay where they are supposed to. The method has been used in northern California’s Klamath Basin (as well as Nevada and other parts of California), and in 2014 the North Fork Mono Tribe agreed with the Sierra National Forest to restore meadows and oaks in the forest using indigenous fire control methods.
The Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign, in existence in the US since 1944, is a leading example of the importance of education in fire prevention – as approximately 80% of such incident are manmade. As climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires, the US Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, Utah, and Idaho have partnered with Maverik – Adventure’s First Stop, a convenience store operating in 382 locations across 12 western states to further educate people on the subject; the partnership makes sense as the store is usually the last stop adventurers make before heading into the forest. France has been running similar awareness campaigns as Smokey Bear since the 1970s, initiatives that are ever more needed as wildfires increasingly occur outside the Mediterranean area.
After 20,000 hectares of land were destroyed in south-west France, President Emmanuel Macron called for a pan-European fleet of planes to fight wildfires. The country’s 22-strong unit of firefighting planes is one of the most modern in Europe, but with most Mediterranean countries affected by wildfires, cross-border cooperation – in the shape of a fleet that could deployed across the European Union – would give greater added flexibility. In July, Portugal had to request emergency assistance from EU firefighting planes located in Spain.
5. AI and big data
Tech companies specializing in artificial intelligence believe that the use of data collected before, during and after wildfires can be essential in helping to prevent them. From the data, algorithms can be created, and from these algorithms, fire prevention information can be shared internationally.
AI innovator NVIDIA, defence contractor Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service and Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control are collaborating to simulate a wildfire’s digital twin and predict its progress. Using a Lockheed Martin system that combines real-time sensor data to gather information about the vegetation, topography, wind and other factors, the goal is to “help crews respond more quickly and effectively to wildfires while reducing risk to fire crews and residents,” said Shashi Bhushan, Principal AI Architect at Lockheed Martin.
Data capture is pivotal to better understanding fire phenomena. Drones fitted with lasers can map dry areas at a greater risk of ignition. Working in conjunction with satellite imagery and towers/poles fitted with sensors fitted with thermal cameras, Australia has been one of the pioneers in wildfire prevention. With these methods, a wide range of information can be collated including ground cover, smoke colour and types of air particles.
In the US, drones are being tested in the Great Plains that shoot fireball igniters known as “dragon eggs”. Plastic spheres the size of ping-pong balls filled with flammable chemicals, they help eradicate deeply rooted shrubs, allowing fast-growing grasses to thrive in their place; an automated version of indigenous cultural burning.
All hands on deck
Ultimately, it is climate change that is driving the increase in wildfires – so in the long term, measures to reduce emissions and cool the planet are the optimum solution. But while governments are getting their act together, education remains the least expensive, least risky form of wildfire prevention – especially given the prominent human factor at play. In between, it’s a case of all hands on deck with international cooperation, technological advances, ancient practices and more vying to prove their effectiveness in stifling the flames.
Written By: Olivium staff.