It’s fire season in the US. If previous years are anything to go by, it could be one of the worst on record. According to a recent study by Stanford University, the occurrence of extreme fire weather has more than doubled in California since the 1980s.
This same trend can be seen all over the world. Even the Arctic Circle has witnessed unprecedented wildfires in recent summers, with flames sweeping across Siberia, Alaska and Greenland.
The economic cost of these fires can be staggering. The 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia caused as much as $100bn in damages. Given the shocking speed at which fires can spread – sometimes up to 14 miles per hour – an early response by fire services is critical to stop a blaze from growing out of control. With new technology, we are better placed to do this than ever before.
Fighting fire with fire
Traditionally, the tools used by fire services are relatively low-tech. From above, helicopters will drop water and foam on the flames, while firefighters on the ground deploy a range of techniques – such as burning out or backburning – to try and stop the fire from spreading any further.
But the problem with these strategies is they are reactive; by the time they’re deployed, a lot of damage may have already been done. “Right now, most resources are going to fire suppression, but it is clearly shown that investing more before the fire happens is much more efficient,” said Cristina Santin Nuno, Associate Professor of Biosciences at Swansea University.
For instance, one tool, a class of fire suppressants called “water-enhancing gels” – which keeps water on structures for longer – is only ever used to protect infrastructure from fast-approaching fires. However, these retardants don’t work for long. They can be easily washed off even in mild precipitation. This means the best they can do is buy the firefighters some time.
Eric Appel, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University, was developing creams to carry drugs through the skin and into the human body when he realised the same techniques could be used to apply fire retardants onto trees. “We developed our materials […] so that a single application at the beginning of the fire season could prevent ignitions throughout the entire fire season,” he said. “So we weren’t so much aiming to slow down fires that are already raging, but we rather sought to stop fires before they even start at the source of their ignition.”
Prevention over treatment
Preventing some of the worst fires from starting in the first place would greatly reduce their impact. But when most people think about preventing wildfires, their mind jumps to one of the major causes behind recent wildfires’ frequency and intensity: climate change.
Santin Nuno thinks that fixating on climate change can actually stop people from taking the right steps towards fire mitigation. “I believe it is very dangerous to think it is only climate change making fires worse,” she said, “as that can lead to people thinking ‘there is nothing we can do’.”
Santin Nuno’s research has helped her identify which areas are more at-risk of a wildfire breaking out. She explains that these areas usually have higher levels of interaction between humans and flammable vegetation. “For example, in North America, we are seeing over the last couple of decades a huge growth of the Wildland-Urban Interface – where houses are close to or within vegetated areas, such as forest,” she said. “Of course, living by or in a forest sounds great but, obviously, when a fire comes that is the worst place you can have your house in.”
Using technology, fire services can monitor these more at-risk areas and respond before a fire has even started. Today, firefighters can create in several minutes a map predicting the development of a fire – something that previously would have taken twenty-four hours to construct.
“Prevention specialist use a program called Wildfire Prevention Spatial Assessment and Planning Strategies (WPSASPS),” said Sean Triplett, Branch Leader for Tools and Technology, NIFC US Forest Service, “which is a web-based application that analyses various factors for fire starts with a focus on human-caused fires in a geographic area. The program uses a model to determine which types of prevention activities should be focused on the area along with developing a budget and a program that outlines ways to reduces the risk of human caused wildfires. These can include public outreach through prevention messages, increasing prevention patrols or suggesting fire restrictions based on human activities and fuel conditions.”
Understanding where wildfires start means fire services can apply preventative treatment with greater efficiency. For example, Appel’s water-enhancing gel, the Phos-Chek FORTIFY, doesn’t have to be distributed across a huge area in order to be effective. “We have found that over 80 percent of wildfires in California over the past 10 years are strongly localised adjacent to roadsides and utilities infrastructure,” said Appel, “meaning that a prophylactic treatment of a small amount of land, such as a 20-foot-wide treatment adjacent to the roadside, could potentially prevent a majority of wildfires by averting them at their source.”
Investing for the future
Research and development is vital for the creation of products like Phos-Chek FORTIFY. But commercialising the technology represents the next big step.
“We launched a start-up company in late 2018 called LaderaTech to commercialize the product, which we called FORTIFY at the time,” said Appel. “LaderaTech received the 2020 Best Venture Award from the US DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and was acquired in May by Perimeter Solutions, the world leader in wildland fire retardants.”
Even once the technology is available, there are barriers that can stop fire services adopting them. A big one is cost. As it is, many fire services’ budgets are stretched to their limit. The US Forest Service spends $3.4bn a year — 57 percent of its budget — on preventing and suppressing fires. When the fires are bigger and more costly, it is forced to move funds from other critical natural resource management programmes. As the Forest Service explains in its Fire Budget Report, this takes funding away from the “upkeep of programmes and infrastructure that support thousands of recreation jobs and billions of dollars of economic growth in rural communities”.
The coronavirus has only made fire mitigation harder. In April, the US Forest Service suspended a wildfire prevention method called controlled burns, due to concerns over social distancing and respiratory problems caused by smoke. Meanwhile, California halted plans to spend billions on wildfire mitigations due to budget cuts caused by the coronavirus crisis.
But investing more in prevention is the best way forward, if we’re to reduce the risk of catastrophic damage caused by wildfires. While true prevention would mean mitigating the effects of climate change, technology can give us a vital head start. After all, it’s a problem that isn’t going away. “Fire has been on the Earth surface for millions and millions of years, and it will still be here whatever efforts we make. Just as we cannot stop torrential rains and floods, we can also not stop fire fully,” said Santin Nuno. “We need to adapt to fire and be ready to face it.”