Smokey Bear may say that only you can prevent forest fires, but these days, it’s IT and technology that’s helping fight them.
By almost any way you measure it, this year’s toll of forest and other wildfires was among the worst ever. “The average number of large wildfires occurring annually is up 78 percent since the 1980s,” writes Joe Cecin in TechCrunch. “As a result, resources for fighting these fires are badly stretched. In spite of having nearly 29,000 firefighters battling the Western blazes, often at great personal risk, it has not been nearly enough to contain many of the fires.”
More than 9 million acres—the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined—have burned so far this year, the biggest since 2006. More than 52,000 fires have been recorded, the most since 2011, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. “2015 has already earned a spot as the 4th worst year on record, and the 2015 wildfire season is still going strong,” writes Deanna Conners in Earthsky. And fires could extend through November.
But firefighters have more weapons in their arsenal these days than hoses and Pulaski tools. In fact, the tools they use to succeed in their business are a lot like the tools you need to succeed in yours.
Big data. While more data is being collected about fires, the National Science Foundation’s WIFIRE project, which started last year, helps firefighters figure out what to do with it. “WIFIRE merges observations, such as satellite imagery and real-time data from sensors in the field, with computational techniques like signal processing, visualization, modeling and data assimilation, to monitor environmental conditions and predict where and how fast a wildfire will spread,” write Miles O’Brien and Ann Kellan in Science Nation.
“The vision for WIFIRE is to put in place a programmable, scalable, and reusable wildfire modeling framework,” writes Elena Malykhina in InformationWeek. “When fully developed, WIFIRE will be accessible to users via specialized web interfaces and alerts broadcasted to receivers before, during, and after a wildfire.” Having such infrastructure in place would be especially useful during major wildfires, she writes.
Drones. As overeager amateur drone owners have grounded firefighting planes and helicopters, drones have actually come under some criticism this year. But in the hands of professionals, drones can provide overviews of what’s going on in rugged country, more quickly and with less danger to personnel than sending out a team, Cecin writes.
“Tracking the status of vegetation (the fuel) and developing conditions is difficult across vast expanses of undeveloped, often inaccessible land,” Cecin writes. “Drones offer tremendous opportunity from the hours of videos and imagery they capture, enabling authorities to spot conditions ripe for wildfires.”
GIS and mapping. Using satellite data and maps, firefighters are better able to track not only where a fire has been, but where it’s going. Satellite imagery collected by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can be coupled with other tools to provide a much more granular look at what’s happening on the ground, without having to send firefighters into an inferno.
Social media. The immediacy of social media, as well as the fact that people can use it over cellphones, has been providing a great way for firefighters to keep track of what’s actually going on with a fire, being alerted to hotspots and keeping residents informed long before traditional media can, writes Tiffany Ann Brown in Holistic Marketing Concepts.
In particular, firefighters and media organizations this year began using Periscope, a tool that lets people easily send live video and audio over a Twitter stream. Between Twitter and Periscope, Northern California’s Valley Fire, which devastated the city of Middletown, captured the attention of the Internet as it ravaged the city’s downtown core.
“A fire photographer, EPN564, broadcast live six times from the Valley Fire, about 70 miles north of San Francisco,” writes Bill Gabbert in Wildfire Today. “The high quality video that showed active fire, including homes burning, was striking.”
Periscope offers another unintended benefit for firefighters: It’s two-way. Viewers who choose to follow the stream can also comment on it, ranging from offering suggestions—such as a Sacramento fire agency that responded it would send additional help—to simply offering support and good wishes to the firefighters. “The general public (and various people tuning in from around the globe) were encouraging them along every step of the way with words of support and concern as these periscopers did their best to share what was happening with viewers live and in real time,” writes Brown.
After decades of hoses and Pulaski tools, firefighters are learning to adapt to change and accept new tools that make their jobs easier. A lesson for all of us.
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