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Posted: June 25, 2013

The futurist: No more forest fires—ever

It's possible -- but should we?

Thomas Frey

Recently, I’ve been listening to news reports about the devastating fires burning in Colorado.

Record heat, high winds, low humidity and large numbers 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 fires, I’m also convinced that none of these fires should have gotten to this point. Here’s why.

In the minutes between the time a fire first starts and when it reaches a point of being out of control, there exists 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 all 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? 

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 and other factors. 

A 2010 report, The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western U.S. 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. 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 more than $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 percent of the total.

Using rough calculations, last year's $1 billion fire suppression budget, at roughly 20 precent 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 more than 25 years ago could instantly detect missile launches anywhere on earth within seconds. 

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

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Before engaging in this high-tech fire supression "solution", it might be worthwhile to consider that a major contributer to the current conditions that fuel these fires is the long-standing policy of agressive fire supression. The resulting dense forests with lots of undergrowth are "perfect" conditions for fire-storms. By Bill on 2013 07 02
What a GREAT idea Thomas! I hope someone seriously considers it and brings it to fruition! By Elizabeth on 2013 06 25
Next week maybe you can calculate the true cost of sunshine, taking into account everything from drapery fading to skin cancer. As long as you don't tabulate the benefits, the math will be very scary. By Curious on 2013 06 25
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