The futurist: More about stamping out forest fires forever

(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.