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Posted: June 26, 2013

The futurist: More about stamping out forest fires forever

Not all blazes are bad

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.)

Thermal-infrared imaging sensors on NASA’s Ikhana unmanned research aircraft could be adjusted to detect forest fires at a very early stage.

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

Bluesky is a British 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.

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 years, we have debated whether to let nature take its course.

In 2012, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than 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? 

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.

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.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Dave you sound like a real winner to me! I am sure you are loved by friends and family alike! I wish you well in all you do. BTW, I never said you were wrong, I just said you were insensitive. I wish you what you want, a burned down house, a year of hell and riches for your future! Thomas, I love your idea and hope it comes into being. It will save the 25 percent of us that would never want our homes burned and lives turned upside down. By Elizabeth on 2013 06 26
And being "insensitive" doesn't mean the same thing as "wrong." "The Holocaust didn't happen" is insensitive AND wrong. "7 million non-Jews were also killed in the holocaust so stop whining" is insensitive AND right. By Dave on 2013 06 26
Oh, Elizabeth. I know some of them. They had a party to celebrate their free new house. And all new clothes, more even then they had before. And new cars and new everything. Smart as they were, personal treasures were in a fireproof safe. They didn't lose those. And anyone who lives in a fire-prone area and DOESN'T keep priceless photos in a firebox are just silly. But yes. "inconvenience" me for a year in return for brand new everything and a bunch of extra cash to boot. By Dave on 2013 06 26
Oh my goodness Dave. I can't believe the comment you just made. Although you may be correct in saying a home owner MAY ultimately be compensated generously for the loss of their home. that in NO WAY makes up for the terrible loss of your possessions. In addition, why don't you try to figure out how to get to work the day/week/month after the loss of everything you own. Do you think someone would LOVE to lose everything and be displaced for months? That someone would LOVE to replace their wardrobe, their car, their furniture etc. It takes months upon months to work on replacing items, finding temporary living, dealing with the loss of cherished family photos and memoriblia. I don't know the 75% of people you are talking about. I would like to believe that a larger percentage of people would read your comment and realize how extremely insensitive you are being by making your comment. By Elizabeth on 2013 06 26
My guess: 75% of people who lose their home to wildfire are GLAD. The foundation was settling anyway, or they were "underwater." On top of that, they make out like bandits because Insurance companies don't send adjusters to total losses - they pay the max allowed by the policy. On top of that, donations come pouring in. I bet most people reading this would LOVE a forest fire to take their home. By Dave on 2013 06 26
What a great usage of drones! Amidst the coverage of this year's fires, there was a segment about insurance companies hiring "private" fire fighters to help on certain high-end homes. Seems to me that there are a few options to help cover the costs of the drones: 1. Set up a Special District (pretty easy to do in Colorado, probably as easy in many other states), to assess a special tax on properties in these at-risk areas to pay for drones as well as fire fighting resources 2. Insurance companies charge higher rates for these areas - I know this hurts but the model is already there: Flood Insurance. If homeowners mitigate the potential destruction of their homes, their insurance rates are adjusted accordingly. By Vicki on 2013 06 26

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