Managing fires from the sky

Managing fires from the sky

Climate change’s adverse effects are increasingly noticeable in our daily lives, particularly with abrupt changes in ecosystems and the magnitude of catastrophic events. Wildfires have been one of these events that have experienced a significant growth in frequency and size, burning hectares of forest lands around the world writes Dr Javad Hashempour Ph.D. Assistant Professor in Fire Safety Engineering, University of Central Lancashire.

As hot seasons are becoming longer with record high temperatures, the severity and duration of fires proportionally increment with these climatic changes, making the fires hard to contain and more unpredictable. As a result, the fires lead to massive wildfires with disastrous outcomes, such as the ones experienced in recent years in California or Greece and Portugal in Europe.

Other than burning hectares of bushlands and forests, disastrous fires could have overwhelming financial and social repercussions when they occur in the interface of urban settlements or areas, known as Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) fires. The fires rapidly spread in neighbourhoods and towns, injuring or killing citizens and rendering many houses partially or fully destroyed. Emotional impacts aside, the damages of fires on local economies and the livelihoods of citizens could take years to recover. Fires in North America, Europe, and Australia sometimes take months to come under control, with the capacity to entirely wipe out neighbourhoods and towns.

At a glance, one may think this is a problem in areas with dense forests, such as the American continent or Australia; however, fires have become widespread, burning even in countries with predominantly dry lands. In recent years, especially since 2020, the frequency and sizes of wildfires in the Middle East region have reached an unprecedented level, which was hard to imagine two decades ago. Fires in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran caused significant damage to the economies and overwhelmed the authorities in fighting the fires.

Three days of fires in 2020 in the southern part of Saudi Arabia and the Taif region injured five firefighters, perhaps stimulating Saudi authorities to announce the launch of a wildfire prevention programme and invest in managing fires in their green south and southwestern regions of the country.

Managing wildfire prevention and protection plans requires a comprehensive collection of information about fire behaviours in different weather and vegetation fuel conditions of fire-prone areas. As computers have advanced, fire managers have increasingly relied on fire spread software to study fire behaviours and implement measures to reduce the chances of those events, mostly through prescribed burns.

The structure of these models is based on sets of simplified mathematical correlations and assumptions. The mathematical algorithms are compiled in software supported by Geographic Information System (GIS) spatial and vegetation data, and environmental data inputs. Examples include FARSITE, which has been used by the US Forest Service, or Phoenix RapidFire, developed by the Bushfire CRC and the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Therefore, decision-making by fire managers is highly related to the accuracy and quality of GIS-based vegetation and spatial data acquired by satellite images and remote sensing techniques.

However, the application of remote sensing these days goes beyond just collecting spatial data for fire spread software; the technology now has various uses before, during, and after fire incidents. The acquisition of data by remote sensing techniques is typically through the use of sensors mounted on aircraft or satellites, providing a unique opportunity to gather information over vast and inaccessible areas, and facilitating environmental monitoring, disaster management, and resource assessment. In terms of wildfires, impacted areas can spread over acres of land that only remote sensing can collect data on such a scale to be later processed for pre or post-fire assessments.

The technology has enhanced the efficiency of risk assessment in fire-prone areas before major fire incidents. With advances in artificial intelligence, remote sensing data can now be integrated with machine learning algorithms to predict the future susceptibility of an area to wildfires based on its historical data.

By analysing various factors such as vegetation health, temperature patterns, and historical fire data, the system can predict areas prone to ignition with high accuracy and present overall risk maps of key areas with high vulnerability. As a result, careful attention can be paid to those susceptible areas, and preventive plans (e.g., reducing vegetation loads) can be advised to minimise the likelihood of fire ignition, or better planning for buffer zones in new communities—adjacent or intermingled with wildland areas—to reduce the impact of future wildland-urban interface fires spreading into the communities.

Remote sensing plays a crucial role in the efficient management of fire events, offering valuable tools for early detection, monitoring, and planning for mitigation. Satellites equipped with thermal infrared sensors are capable of identifying heat signatures indicative of wildfires, enabling a swift response and the deployment of firefighting resources to contain the blaze before it evolves into uncontrolled mass fires. Aerial and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery delivers high-resolution views of the fire’s extent, contributing to precise mapping and assessment of the affected areas. Leveraging accurate real-time information from the sensors, authorities can optimise the allocation of firefighting resources based on the severity of fires, thereby enhancing the efficiency of firefighting efforts and resource utilisation.

The technology significantly contributes to mapping burnt severity in post-incident assessments, as depicted in Figure 3. This mapping allows for a comprehensive understanding of the level of severity and risk, aiding in the development of strategies to reduce fire risks in areas where human activities interface with natural vegetation and managing post-fire recovery programs.

The assessments also assist in tracking fire progression, assessing burn severity, evaluating the effectiveness of firefighting strategies, and enabling authorities to assess ecological damage, plan for habitat restoration, and implement preventive measures for future fire risks. All this information helps fire authorities continuously improve decisions and plans in various aspects of combating fires and their impacts.

Integrating remote sensing in forest fire management has enhanced decision-making capabilities, ensuring a more proactive and efficient approach to wildfire prevention and control. Further development of remote sensing technologies shortly allows higher resolution images and data to become available to fire managers, improving the chances of effective decision-making and their expected outcomes.

In recent years, advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, combined with enhanced remote sensing data, have boosted the capability of the technique in accurately predicting future fire patterns. This echoes a bright future for remote sensing, making the idea of managing forest fires from the sky more realistic than ever.