Proposal to Eliminate Forest Fires Completely

Proposal to Eliminate Forest Fires Completely

 

Over the past few days I’ve been listening to news reports about the devastating fires burning in Colorado.

Record heat, high winds, low humidity, and large amounts of beetle-killed trees have created “perfect storm” conditions for multiple wildfires to rage across the State.

At the same time that our hearts and prayers go out to all of the victims of these tragic fire, I’m also convinced that none of these fires should have gotten to this point. Here’s why.

During the first few minutes, between the time when a fire first starts and when it reaches a point of being out of control, is a containment window where only a few gallons of water or a few pounds of fire retardant is necessary to put the evil genie back into its bottle.

Using a fleet of surveillance drones, equipped with special infrared cameras, fires can be spotted during the earliest moments of a containment window, signaling a fleet of extinguisher drones to douse the blaze before anything serious happens.

Drones specifically designed for extinguishing forest fires have the potential to eliminate virtually 100% of the devastating fires that blanket newspaper headlines every summer.

Naturally there’s a downside to eliminating forest fires altogether, so how should we proceed?

How do we measure the true costs of a forest fire?

The True Cost of Forest Fires

In 2012 the U.S. Forest Service had a budget of $948 million for fire suppression, a decrease of nearly $500 million from 2011.

In the U.S., wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres per year from 2002-2011, almost double the average acreage of the previous decade. Some of this can be attributed to factors such as beetle-kill trees, an increasingly mobile society, urbanization of mountain communities, etc.

A 2010 report titled “The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western U.S.” published by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition challenged traditional methods for calculating the cost of forest fires.

They concluded, “Fire suppression costs, while often considered synonymous with the full costs of a wildfire, are only a fraction of the true costs associated with a wildfire event. Synthesis of case studies in the report reveals a range of total wildfire costs anywhere from 2 to 30 times greater than the reported suppression costs.”

One example they used was the June 2002 Hayman Fire which erupted in the highly populated Front Range corridor south of Denver, Colorado. Burning 137,759 acres, it was, at the time, the largest fire in state history. Four counties were directly impacted by the fire: Jefferson, Park, Douglas, and Teller.

Immediate impacts of the fire included the destruction of 132 residences, one commercial building and 466 outbuildings, with an estimated fire suppression cost of over $42 million.

After a thorough investigation of the fire by the U.S. Forestry Service, the true costs were re-calculated as follows:

  • $42,279,000 - Total suppression expenses, including USFS, state, and county expenses, some of which were ultimately reimbursed by FEMA.
  • $135,548,834 - Total direct costs included property losses, utility losses, and USFS facility and resource losses. (Includes suppression expenses)
  • $39,930,000 - Rehabilitation expenses included costs incurred by USFS emergency rehabilitation programs, Denver water, US Geological Survey (USGS) mapping, and USFS restoration.
  • $2,691,601 - Impact costs, incurred after the fire was extinguished, included tax revenue losses and business losses, plus reduced value of the surviving structures within the fire area.
  • $29,529,614 - Special costs recorded were asthma victims, special health cases, and losses to wilderness values.

All told, the costs for the Hayman Fire topped $207 million. Widely reported suppression costs only accounted for 20% of the total.

Using rough calculations, last years $1 billion fire suppression budget, at roughly 20% of the total would indicate a true cost in excess of $5 billion/year.

State of the Art Infrared Technology

In the late 1980s, I was an engineer working as part of an IBM team to build a mobile satellite command and control center for monitoring missile launches from space. This contract was part of Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system.

Whenever a missile was launched, the heat plume coming out of the back of the rocket produces a distinct heat signature instantly detectable by satellites tens of thousands of miles away with infrared sensors.

The technology we were using over 25 years ago could instantly detect missile launches, anywhere on earth, within seconds of the launch.

I can only assume today’s technology is hundreds of times more precise than anything we were working with back then.

2007 NASA image of forest fires in California 

The above photo was taken with thermal-infrared imaging sensors on NASA's Ikhana unmanned research aircraft in 2007 over the Harris Fire in San Diego County in Southern California.

That same technology could be adjusted to detect forest fires at a very early stage.

Thermal image of Boston Bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a boat 

Massachusetts State Police released video taken of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s hiding spot after he was discovered in a boat parked in a Watertown, MA resident’s backyard.

This image was taken with a thermal camera mounted to a helicopter.

Bluesky is a UK company specializing in aerial imaging. They recently purchased a state of the art airborne mapping system that included a LiDAR (Light Imaging Detection and Ranging) system with integrated thermal sensors and high-resolution cameras.

Onboard thermal sensors record infrared measurements capable of showing heat loss in buildings and monitoring pipelines. However, this same technology can be modified to work on flying drones to monitor fire activity on forestlands.

Oil exploration drone used in Norway

Aerial drone technology is advancing exponentially and much of what’s in use today will be museum pieces in five years.

Whether thermal scanners are mounted on satellites, high altitude aircraft, low attitude drones, or some combination of these, monitoring hotspots and instantly determining the danger level is well within our grasp.

The “can-we-should-we” debate

Certainly not all fires are bad. For year we have debated whether to let nature take its course or have us intervene.

In 2012 the U.S. Forest Service, which manages over 35 million acres of forests, made a major policy shift, deciding to intervene on all fires, something environmentalists contend will cause significant long-term damage.

As an example, the Northern Rockies have a long history of wilderness fire, and records indicate most wildfires, when allowed to burn naturally, stay within wilderness boundaries and cost little to manage. Because the wilderness areas are remote and mostly surrounded by other public lands, escaped fires don’t threaten many structures.

The two other major federal agencies charged with managing public lands - the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service – so far have not followed the Forest Service’s lead.

So if we have the capability of spotting fires very early and putting them out, is that preferable to letting them burn? Do we need to craft new policies regarding when and where fires should burn vs. having us intervene?

As we add entire new toolsets to our fire suppression arsenal, these decisions become far more difficult. Who gets to decide, and how liable are they for making a bad decision?

Illustration of a fire extinguisher drone

Final Thoughts

I began this line of thinking looking for a solution to the wildfires we’re currently experiencing here in my home state of Colorado.

Admittedly, managing a 24/7-drone fleet over our massively huge forestlands will be no small undertaking. Surveillance drones will likely be separate from fire-suppression drones.

Extinguishing a fire under several layers of tree canopy will also be a challenge. Every kind of tree will likely require a different navigation strategy, and some densely covered grounds may be entirely unreachable until it’s too late.

Operating drones day and night through inclement conditions like wind, hail, and rain will require an enormous effort. But so does a full-frontal attack on a fire by smokejumpers, bucket-bearing helicopters, and slow lumbering slurry bombers that each dumped more than 2,000 gallons of red chemical fire retardant on a formerly pristine mountainside.

New technology rarely fixes everything and it’s easy to see some of the downside here. But doing nothing is also not an option.

Starting with only a portion of the combined budgets of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service could create a significant enough pilot project to prove its viability.

Knowing that we have this new capability is an obvious first step. So where do we go from here? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” - the book that changes everything

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12 Responses

  1. Given the massive toll financially that accumulates with such fires argues for a definite viability program. Everyone knows we waste too much money on worthless studies. Why not allocate dollars for this? This would probably not have to be a 24/7 program either. There are certain high fire danger seasons. At least run the program for 4-5 months of the year and determine if it is worth it. The costs could presumably be scaled. As for the question of should we?…that could be decided on an individual matter. Spot the fire first with early detection, then make a calculated determination. It seems like a win-win.
    However, will the practice actually be adopted? Probably not. It’s far too logical. Remember, we’re working with bureaucrats.

  2. FuturistSpeaker

    Neal,

    Great input! Once people have it in their heads that all fires can be eliminated, the pressure on politicians will be enormous. Especially when someone loses a house.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out because virtually everyone who lives in a danger area will make a point of being heard. Silent bystanders go away once the fires start.

    Tom

  3. “Eliminating forest fires completely” (which I understand you’re not necessarily advocating, despite the title) has two major problems. The first is that so many of the areas involved are what ecologists call “fire adapted” where fire is a natural process that revitalizes the landscape, triggers reseeding and starts a plant succession process, recycles nutrients, improves the soil, and contributes to overall watershed health. Suppressing the natural role of fire degrades the ecology of these areas over time.

    The second problem is that that suppressing every fire creates unnatural and unsustainable levels of hazardous fuel build-up. That’s what’s happened over decades past. We already suppress fires so comprehensively that only 1 or 2% become large incidents, but with so much fuel out there, those incidents amount to over 95% of total acres burned. The striving for total suppression is creating a growing danger of nearly uncontrollable megafires.

    All the short-term incentives, for everyone, are to suppress fires immediately, which is creating a situation that’s unsustainable and increasingly dangerous in the long-run. It’s what futurist John Platt, back in the 1970s, called a “Social Trap,” a particularly wicked kind of problem.

  4. FuturistSpeaker

    Bob,

    Well stated! So rather than creating a solution, we’re creating a conundrum. A prisoner’s dilema of sorts.

    I’m guessing we’d better get good at dealing with these types of “social traps” because there are many more to follow.

    Tom

  5. Carl Sherrill

    Tom … I think you are on to something. Obviously ecology is important, as are healthy forests & responsible stewardship. But, when it comes to being “over protective” (obsessive?) on some ecological issues, when does it become “counter productive”.

    Responsible forest thinning should be considered. (We shave & get hair cuts don’t we?)

    As well, the physical capacity & cost of FAST operational deployment (readiness) for forest fire drones is something to consider.

    Also, don’t forget “Uncle Murphy”. If (when) things go beyond the forest drones capacity, a back up of traditional fire fighters will be required.

  6. Bob Cormack

    I think the idea is good, but the hardware and software don’t yet exist to implement it. Perhaps there is some “low hanging fruit” that can be more quickly implemented while we wait for the technology to catch up:

    1) I can see some problems with private aircraft sharing uncontrolled airspace with so many drones. (Almost none of the low altitude airspace over the mountains is in radar range of any FAA facility.) I’m not sure the technology is ready for that yet. The Forest Service already does a pretty good job of spotting fires from manned light aircraft (as well as existing lookout towers). Why not use some funds to equip these platforms with the latest IR detectors, thereby making them more effective (as well as increase the number of patrol aircraft available)?

    2) In big fires (the MT fires of a few years ago, say) there are a lot of times that manned slurry bombers can’t fly: Too windy, at night, or (ironically) no wind, which allows dense smoke to build up and obscure the terrain.

    With the possible exception of high wind, these are the ideal times for a drone bomber. But instead of developing them from scratch, why not take a small crop-duster type bomber (an AgCat, say) and retrofit it for remote and computer control. With available terrain data bases and GPS they could autonomously fly to any location and perform a pre-determined bombing run (on locations pinpointed from either the air or from personnel on the ground), without risk to any human pilots. Much of the control software and hardware for this already exists and is in common use on model planes (as well as available in advanced auto-pilots on large planes). On days when the airspace was shared, a Forrest Service “minder” plane could accompany the drone, keep a lookout for other traffic and take control of the drone if an avoidance maneuver was required.

    3) As to whether this should be done: A very interesting book compares photographs of the Black Hills of SD taken by the Custer expedition of 1874 with the same views taken recently:
    (http://www.amazon.com/The-Black-Hills-Yesterday-Today/dp/0971805334/ref=pd_cp_b_1 )

    One remarkable fact illustrated by this book is that there is now at least 3 times as many trees in S.Dakota as there was in the 1800’s. Since there were no settlements in SD at the time of Custer’s expedition, one is led to think that the virtual explosion of forrest growth must be due to the 100+ years of fire suppression since then. If we can’t somehow reverse this trend, fires may eventually become uncontrollable and we may start seeing events like the Big Blowup (of 1910) start to happen again. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_1910 )

  7. Charles Sorensson

    Bloody good article. Would be nice to get some Aussie foresters to read/respond, because they are particularly experienced at sustainable forest burning, yet have still had some absolutely horrendous fires, e.g. near Sydney. Concrete foundations were turned to dust because of extreme heat; eucalyptus trees exploded.

    Other writers above pointed out the need for a prioritized approach. For starters, think of a 0 to 3 GIS scale where 0=fires allowed to burn, and 3=protect at all costs. Throw drone technology at priority 3 sites where one can manage/test the drone capability.

    I appreciate that fires can start small. But how often does this hold up in fact? Lightning in late summer strikes a dead pine – what is the initial scale of the fire and rate of fire expansion. Can a drone(s) really put it out or at least effectively suppress? Suppression alone could be valuable!

    USFS is probably already using satellite imagery, if not other imagery, to spot fires early. But say that effectiveness of early fire spotting needs to be sharply improved – could a fleet of semi-autonomous drones provide this? Maybe the right strategy could sometimes be rapid detection followed by rapid fighting using more normal methods (retardant from bigger planes)?

    As for the discussion of the environmental value of forest burning, within reason my eco-sense lies firmly with those who advocate it. Even so, the pressure on “saving forests from fire” must be immense. I doubt this is socially straightforward except in true wilderness. If you are going to burn, do it when snow or rain can help you keep the fire from getting it too hot.

    As for thinning… great idea except that you generate a lot of basal dry fuel that is very susceptible to burning. You may be able to thin in fall as you are going into winter, but you will still leave some (a lot?) fuel for the following summer. Get some experts to comment on this.

    Everyone seems to accept the notion that an “army of drones” could provide exceptional forest imagery. Why not combine thermal imaging for fires with other types of imaging, e.g. for forest health, erosion, climate change, ecological succession, illegal roading, wildlife management, even poaching? Would this make drones cost effective?

    What exactly can low-level imagery from drones see that satellite imagery cannot? And how do costs match up? What is the human risk of a drone that falls out of the sky? What about security (proprietary technology) risks?

    Seems to me that a rather quick study would easily crack out the basics of these strategy questions. Cool topic area. Fine job Thomas!

  8. Sounds like a viable and intelligent logistical approach, but…. there is a lot more to be viewed in considering how to best deal with the Western forest fire issues.

    After investing 8 years of being involved in beetlekill wood utilization and studying our Western forests trying to learn everything available about the issues and opportunities regarding this epidemic, (Triggered mostly by a.) overcrowded and unhealthy forests, b.) drought, c.) warming.), that has currently claimed a kill rate of 70-90% of our Coniferous forests that span almost 90 million acres throughout the West, I would point out that other factors need to be considered in the discussion of Western Forest health and fire suppression – and the much bigger picture is what to do about the unstoppable spread of forest death that scientist believe will result in an 80-90% die off of ALL Western Coniferous forests within the next 10-15 years. In my opinion, the conversation about what actions to take need to also address the question of, “What do we do with all these dead trees that create nothing but billions of dollars of risk?” In lieu of the need to protect our infrastructure of communities, water, power, communication, transportation, and all the recreational, tourism, and urban economies associated with this unprecedented devastation, I think billions spent on firefighting and the associated costs of fire, is only a piece of the big picture. Additionally, billions of tons of carbon is expected to be released over the time that all this timber burns or decays. Fewer trees mean less carbon absorbed and less oxygen creation. Science had feared, and is now confirming, that this is likely to feed the warming cycle, so massive burning is not the singular answer, and neither is almost total suppression. Should a really big fire hit now, prior to much of this timber hitting the ground, it is highly likely that there will be less overall damage. The more fuel that is on the ground, the more we will find our soils baked so that nothing can grow. As in most cases the answer lies in the middle somewhere, but action is needed now. There is no more time to debate and pontificate about the ultimate best means to deal with these issues. Inaction will result in far more lives lost and many more billions of dollars lost and spent; the best answers will come only after implementing the best plan we can determine at this moment, then working through better solutions as these actions show results.
    One last note for now: I had 10 investment homes along the 285 corridor and know first-hand the impacts on those property values and thus economically as an individual.

  9. David Bengston

    Thomas,
    Good discussion on an increasingly important wicked problem. I’ll have a poster describing an ongoing project on “The Future of Wildland Fire Management” in the poster session at the World Future Society conference next month. Please stop by and chat if you’re attending. Bob Olson of the Institute for Alterntive Futures is my partner in this project.
    dave

  10. Colorado Native

    Drones are one way, but what about privatizing fire mitigation efforts. There is a proposal in the southern part of the state to build a biomass plant that could use beetle kill trees to produce fuel for electricty production. If we opened our government doors to privatizing some efforts, we could see improvement in the health of our forest, without having to fund expensive experimental technology equipment. Or to compliment those efforts. Drones seem to have so many uses; some not so friendly to our personal privacy. Once in the hands of an agency; how do you keep them from being used for uses not indended to fight fires?

  11. Charles Sorensson

    Has anyone tracked the “legislation” in Colorado allowing/encouraging hunting of drones? Eegads, sounds messy, not to mention dangerous when a drone drops out of the sky with either a load of fuel or a powerful battery…

  12. I am very interested in using military grade UAV (non-line of sight control) with state-of -the art hyper-spectral. What is the next step? We are framing a concept for a small regional airport. You interested in helping?

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