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Energy & Green Tech

Wildfires in the American West: Can Technology Help Save Lives?

Wildfire image via Shutterstock

Wildfire image via Shutterstock

In the wake of the June 30th Granite Mountain tragedy, in which 19 of 20 members of an elite Hotshots team died fighting a huge wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona—the greatest loss of firefighters in a single day since the 9-11 attacks—there is a shift in focus toward the “new normal.” Prevention and preparedness clearly are not enough; by all accounts, the Hotshots were experienced, well-prepared experts, an elite force combat-trained to handle even the toughest wilderness fires. This fire, said their local fire chief, was “just too dangerous.”

Beyond the perfect-storm conditions that led to the tragedy in Arizona, we’re left with the horrifying realization that climate change is resulting in wildfires of increasing severity and frequency in the U.S. West. “By 2050, the annual extent of forests burned is predicted to rise by 50 percent or more. So officials and experts are increasingly relying on technology both high and low to counteract the trickery of raging wildfires,” writes Kenneth Chang in The New York Times.

Chang reports that “The Forest Service is using a mix of off-the-shelf software and custom apps tailored to the needs of firefighting,” noting that some of the tech-enabled techniques they’re now deploying include:

  • Setting thousands of virtual fires via computer simulations to gain more knowledge about weather patterns, topography, and vegetation.
  • Creating “mesh networks”—modeling what’s already being used by the U.S. military, FEMA and the U.S. Homeland Security Department—which would more readily allow firefighters to share information.
  • Using weather satellites to capture thunderstorms as they form; and
  • Using drones with infrared sensors to track the movement of fires that otherwise would have been obscured by smoke.

With no way to stop the fires, these approaches offer a glimmer of hope that more and better access to real-time, potentially lifesaving information may soon be within our first responders’ reach.

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