Australia suffered some of its worst bushfires ever in the summer of 2019/2020, a period now known colloquially as the ‘Black Summer’. Although difficult to accurately quantify, it is estimated that fires burnt almost 20 million hectares of land and destroyed almost 6,000 buildings. The human cost was at least 34 lives lost. In recent years other locations around the world have suffered similarly, especially North America and Europe. There is a clear trend that the destruction caused by bushfires is getting worse year on year.
As the number and intensity of bushfires grow, the resources available to fight those fires are becoming more stretched: the increase in fires outpaces the increase in firefighting resources. Although traditional firefighting resources (such as appliances and personnel) need to be expanded, it is also necessary to implement new technologies to fight fires more efficiently. It is no longer sufficient to rely on current practices. One of those new technologies is widespread, affordable, real-time fire intelligence gathering, or fire mapping.
Current fire-mapping operations
Many countries have some form of fire-mapping capability, commonly in the form of large assets of which there are typically only a few. For example, the Australian federal and state governments currently fund the operation of five linescanner aircraft. For the upcoming 20/21 fire season, the Rural Fire Service of New South Wales has recently purchased two aerial fire-mapping systems. In the United States, the National Infrared Operations (NIROPS) unit run by the USDA Forest Service operates two linescanner aircraft for fire-mapping operations. In all these cases the type of aircraft used is a Cessna Citation or a Beechcraft King Air.
The effectiveness of these services is mixed: the fire-mapping intelligence they provide is excellent, but the small number of aircraft means that there are obvious geographical limitations. The aircraft cannot be in two places at once, resulting in opportunities for mapping fires being regularly missed. The situation is analogous to that of fire-bombing: a small number of large air tankers (LATs) provide an important component of the overall aerial firefighting capability, but they cannot match the efficacy of numerous single-engine air tankers (SEATs) spread across a wide area.
In addition to the relatively small number of fire-mapping aircraft, in many regions of the world further fire intelligence is provided by gyrostabilized thermal camera systems mounted on smaller fixed or rotary wing aircraft. The ‘point and shoot’ technology is able to continuously look at a certain point of interest (such as a burning house) and send that data as a video stream to the firefighters in real time. Although extremely useful, it is important to note that this technology does not provide the incident management team with wide-area ‘big picture’ mapping, but rather intelligence at a specific location.
Future technologies for fire mapping
Many companies are developing new solutions for real-time tactical fire mapping. Unsurprisingly, there is a focus on drone technology. As the capabilities of drones increase almost exponentially, the opportunities for their use in firefighting is similarly increasing. Although current aviation regulations prohibit or severely restrict the use of drones near fires, it is clear that as this technology progresses, that will surely change. However, aviation regulations change slowly (for very good reasons), so although drones will be an important component of aerial firefighting in the future, they are not going to be a big part of the solution any time soon.
Satellite sensors are often promoted as part of the fire-mapping solution. Although useful in detecting fires in remote areas, satellite data often has neither the timeliness nor the spatial resolution to be useful as a tactical firefighting tool.
So the question that remains is how to make wide-area fire mapping far more ubiquitous, in a way that doesn’t conflict with current aerial firefighting operations and doesn’t require a budget which is beyond the means of typical firefighting agencies. One viable solution is to exploit the most up-to-date technology in thermal imaging, GPS and inertial measurement, and place that equipment on platforms that are widely available and cost-effective to operate. Fortunately, advances in the drone industry have sparked a revolution in imaging and positioning technologies. Thermal cameras, designed for drones but usable on any platform, are smaller and cheaper than could have even been imagined ten years ago. Similarly, positioning technologies (GPS and inertial measurement systems) have become affordable and widely available. By combining these sensors with advanced software, it is now possible to build a complete fire-mapping system for less than $100K (AUD). Among other companies, FireFlight Technologies of Adelaide, Australia, is doing exactly this.
An example of cost-effective fire mapping: Kangaroo Island, 2020
The fire-mapping system developed by FireFlight Technologies was deployed to the Kangaroo Island fires in January 2020, in support of operations carried out by the Australian Army. The fire maps generated by the FireFlight system quickly became crucial to early intelligence-gathering efforts and helped the Army to plan and execute its recovery and relief operations, in support of emergency services and local communities on the island.
The FireFlight system was mounted in a high-performance Piper Comanche single-engine aircraft and flown high over the fire at 10,000 feet. The height of the aircraft meant that it was widely separated from any other air traffic, especially those aircraft involved in fire-suppression activities. Image data of a number of different fires was acquired, processed in real time, and rapidly delivered to the Army intelligence unit.
At one particular site, Vivonne Bay, imagery was acquired at two separate times, three hours apart. At 2pm on 9 January the fire was located to the north of Vivonne Bay and travelling rapidly in a southerly direction. The footprint of the fire at this time was relatively small, although its intensity was high, and it was producing a considerable amount of smoke.
Three hours later, at 5pm, the fire had moved to within a stone’s throw of the Vivonne Bay township, where it was threatening a number of properties. Fortunately, by this time, the town had been evacuated. Rather than burning in open farming country as it was earlier, the fire was now burning in dense native vegetation, and had increased in size and intensity tremendously. The efforts of the front-line air attack aircraft, combined with firefighting personnel on the ground, meant that the township was spared the worst of the destruction.
This particular fire shows the importance of having fire-mapping assets available, even for relatively small fires. The maps presented here show the fire three hours apart. Had data been acquired at much more frequent intervals, say 20 minutes apart, the progress of the fire could have been tracked more precisely, and potentially given the incident-management team greater insight about how the fire was going to develop.
The Vivonne Bay fire on 9 January was just one of many fires burning on Kangaroo Island at that time. A single fire-mapping aircraft, irrespective of the aircraft type and equipment onboard, could not have mapped all those fires at this high frequency. Thus an opportunity to precisely monitor the development of these fires was missed due to a lack of fire-mapping assets.
It should be noted that with dozens, if not hundreds, of other fires burning in most other Australian states and territories at exactly the same time, the five available fire-mapping aircraft were by no means sufficient to provide intelligence on all of these fires. Again the analogy with LATs and SEATs is relevant: the five Cessna Citations operating on the East Coast on 9 January need to be augmented with numerous smaller mapping aircraft spread across the whole country.
New technologies; new procedures
An ongoing weakness in the remote-sensing industry is the difficulty in translating data (in this case real-time fire maps) into decisions (such as where to deploy fire appliances, or which properties to evacuate). Acquisition, processing and delivery of aerial imagery is generally a straightforward engineering problem which is easy to define and therefore solvable. However, presenting a fire agency with a deluge of real-time fire data is not going to increase the effectiveness of that agency unless procedures are in place for managing it. The full value of the data will never be fully realised if the methodologies to use that data are not fully developed. As with any new technology that presents itself, its success will depend on how well it can be incorporated into current operating procedures, and how well those procedures can be adapted to accommodate the new technology.