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Thinking about a Future with New, Effective Wildfire Suppression Tools

Imagine a future where powerful satellite and other data collection systems are the sophisticated inputs for extraordinarily powerful modeling systems to prepare for near real-time decision-making about wildfires. Imagine a future where satellite, UAV, and ground-based sensor systems (along with humans) detect any wildfire at its inception (or subsequent hotspots) and communicate that information in near real time into these models, along with current atmospheric and ground moisture conditions. Imagine decision-makers being able to decide in near real time whether to let all or part of a fire burn, or whether the impact on the environment and threat to public safety requires fighting all or part of it. Imagine a future where military-style rapid and precision targeting delivery systems (from UAVs to helicopters and other aircraft to special artillery shells [1]) can rapidly be deployed to the exact site of the fire.

There is a great deal of investment in all of these technologies today, and all of them are moving forward in their capabilities extremely rapidly. Yet, for the most part, they are not being deployed in fighting wildfires. They are being mostly used to rapidly assess the damage from wildfires and other disasters on behalf of governments and insurance companies.

But imagine the future after Wildfire Breakthrough has succeeded and a range of new, commercial, wildfire suppression products have been developed. What might these new products look like in use? What would be the characteristics of them that would make them the most effective, and the most efficient? How might they be combined with the above technologies into a new, efficient paradigm of fighting wildfires that should not be allowed to burn? What are the new business opportunities in these adjoining spaces that would arise?

The larger a wildfire gets, the harder it is to put it out. Thus, we should focus on “early detection and suppression” -- before fires get out of hand. Jim Lyons of the Department of Interior stressed this pairing in a conversation recently.

There seem to be five conceptual elements to an ideal wildfire suppression system [2]:

  • preparation (collection of data into detailed models)
  • early detection
  • accurate and swift use of modeling to determine whether and/or where the fire should be suppressed
  • rapid and effective delivery systems
  • effective suppression

In thinking about each of these areas we need to have our thinking break free of the practical constraints of today, remembering that things that are possible today were not conceivable 10 years ago. We can safely predict that this technological progress will continue in the future. Moore’s Law has not been repealed.

The rest of these notes seek to address such a future system. These thoughts are based on intensive conversations with experts in catastrophe and atmospheric modeling, satellites and sensors, insurance, and airborne delivery systems; these systems that could take advantage of new suppression products to perform a very different role in the future: rapidly suppressing wildfires. The best new fire suppression products (and presumably the easiest to develop) would be those which would:

  • cover the smallest possible area, and
  • could be deployed very fast.

These two capabilities would allow new suppression products to take advantage of these other technologies most optimally as discussed below.

Preparation. The insurance industry and vendors to it have developed very sophisticated models that are employed today in predicting risk (so the premiums can be calculated) and in rapidly calculating the damage from ongoing events. The current state of the art in the use of these with wildfires is a latency of three hours (in predicting how much damage has been caused). If the data in such models were to be used in near real time for decisions on fighting fires, a significant amount of attention would need to be paid to preparing the databases for such use. There is a range of supporting technologies, such as GIS and high-performance computing, that would need to be involved as well.

There are several firms that provide modeling to the insurance industry. The use of such models in a near real time context for preparing for and fighting wildfires could be an interesting business proposition for them and their partners.  One can imagine federal, state, and local governments investing significantly in the services in preparation for fighting and protecting the public during wildfires.

Imagine a next generation of models that are fed all the satellite data and current meteorological data and can therefore predict what an unchecked fire will do, and therefore whether it should be suppressed immediately. (One can also imagine a wide variety of additional uses of this kind of capability for decision support in the course of firefighting, not just helping a binary go/no go choice at the beginning).

Early detection. The traditional system of a Ranger in a tower with binoculars is not going to work. The most promising solutions seems to be a network of digital sensors, of which the centerpiece would probably be satellites. Satellites are being used to report on and predict damage from wildfires already. For years the US military has had satellites that can detect the heat signature of missiles being launched and report that information in almost real time. Today there are an enormous number of satellites in geostationary and low Earth orbit, mostly commercial, reporting on various Earth conditions, including many that are relevant to detecting and predicting the impact of wildfires (e.g. moisture in the soil). The latest technology of one important satellite company reportedly allows detection of heat differences of surface soil (e.g. hotspot detection). Experts in catastrophes say the numbers and capabilities of these satellites are moving ahead by leaps and bounds. In high-risk areas, one can imagine the deployment of full-time drones to fill the gaps between orbiting passes by satellites. Information from these sources could be stitched together (including with terrestrial sources from stationary sensors to 9-1-1 calls) into an effective detection system.

Employment of satellites and terrestrial detection systems in this manner would create an important new market for these businesses, along with the various IT and communications companies that would tie these sources together with the models and response capabilities.

Modeling. We are not going to return to the days of putting out every fire. Therefore, decisions have to be made by government officials very quickly on which ones to suppress and which ones to let burn. Given the new focus on the contribution to global warming, this decision is no longer as “simple” as avoiding damage to people or property. It is probably also not a binary decision at the beginning of a fire, but one that needs to be made multiple times for different parts of larger fires. One new aspect for the modeling would be this decision support, taking advantage of the capabilities of new fire suppression products invented in the Wildfire Breakthrough process.

There is a significant global business proposition here for risk prediction and modeling firms which could cause them to want to join our initiative.

Rapid and effective delivery systems. Primarily based on military investment, UAV technology has moved ahead by leaps and bounds in the last decade. It is not hard to imagine the use of this technology to rapidly deliver new fire suppression products or services. The same can be said for more traditional air delivered methods such as helicopters, or a highly nontraditional use of artillery shells, such as Boeing recently patented. The point is that we can deliver a large amount of film, chemicals, sound or other “thing” rapidly and accurately in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago.

Suppression. As entrepreneurs begin to think about what is possible in direct suppression products, they will think about the context and systems by which those are deployed. All of the recent progress in the above areas will increase the incentives of fire suppression entrepreneurs to innovate and invest, because they will see the possibility that a variety of solutions could be successful commercially because they could fit into a wholly new paradigm of technology–driven rapid detection and fighting of wildfires. Putting out wildfires could be done with something less than the equivalent of a neutron bomb.

David Aylward, President COMCARE

[1] See recent patent for this by Boeing.

[2] Of course, suppression is only one aspect of the broader and more comprehensive policies of forest management and damage prevention that should be followed. Many other experts and organizations are focused on these. Wildfire Breakthrough’s mission is to support R&D of new suppression products...

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