Preventing Fires is Risky Business and Why AI can help?
As our planet continues to warm, increased fires across the globe have created havoc globally with increased frequency and severity. Preventing wildfires and predicting their risks, before they are out of control is a priority for governments globally as the 2024 weather outlook is predicting another devastating heat scorching year ahead.
Fighting wildfires is not only complex; it is dangerous and takes lives.
Global Forest Watch tracks tree losses and their latest data on forest fires that compared to twenty years ago, determined that we are today burning twice as much tree cover. In addition, a recent study by the University of Maryland, calculated that forest fires result in three million more hectares of tree cover loss per year compared to 2001, an area roughly the size of Belgium, and accounted for more than one-quarter of all tree cover loss over the past twenty years.
In 2023, we saw heightened fire activity, including record-breaking burns across Canada and catastrophic fires in Hawaii. The increasing levels of fire are accelerating due to climate change and the extreme heat waves which are already five times more likely today than one hundred years ago.
One of the largest fires in the United States in 2022 was the California Mosquito Fire, which burned thousands of hectares of forest in and near areas classified as wildland- urban interfaces, destroying seventy-eight structures in nearby communities. This was just one of the many fires that made 2022, a record year in the U.S., with almost one million hectares of tree cover burned across the country, resulting in roughly $3.2 billion in damages.
Furthermore, summer heat waves were a dominant force in driving fire activity across the Mediterranean basin. In 2022, record-breaking heat and drought in Spain resulted in more than 70,000 hectares of tree cover burned, the largest amount since 2001. Five years earlier, more than 130,000 hectares of tree cover burned in Portugal under similar circumstances, a greater loss than the previous ten years combined.
Where I live in Canada, we experienced record levels of fires burning coast to coast. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported that an estimated 18.5 million hectares have burned in 2023, surpassing the previous high of 17.5 million hectares dating back to 1983.
Finding new ways to forecasting wildfire risks is not new, however the methods using AI is relatively new, as an alternative method to combat changes brought about by increasingly climatic changes. Firefighters and start-ups are using AI-enabled cameras to scan the horizon for signs of smoke. A German company is building a constellation of satellites to detect fires from space. And Microsoft is using AI models to predict where the next blaze could be sparked.
Another initiative is The FireAId initiative, led by the World Economic Forum, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to give those fighting fires a better chance of acting at earlier stages, before the fire becomes “wild.” In other words studying wildfire trends, analyzing data to build better prediction tools. Data, AI, and simulation technology can help cut through the complexity and give firefighters more insights to help fight the effects of climate change. The FireAId vision is to provide an intuitive tool that is both user-friendly and useful, allowing firefighters to gain valuable time, focusing resources where they will be most effective.
Canada which was hard hit coast to coast with major forest devastations in 2023 is also innovating where Alberta’s Province’s forest firefighting agency partnered with Edmonton headquartered, AltaML, which can now successfully forecast a new wildfire eighty percent of the time. Using machine learning, the AltaML fight prevention AI Model analyzes thousands of data points to forecast, based on region, how likely new fires will be the next day. Given that it’s trained through historical fire data, it can also make predictions through regional weather and forest conditions. It analyzed global carbon emissions , each day of the week to see if there are any correlations with wildfires, climate change and human behaviour.
One of the areas of research underway is “Being able to predict where the most likely chance of wildfires are on a daily basis, so that crews and equipment can be placed appropriately … it’s looking like it’s going to save millions of dollars just this fire season, just by reallocating resources to the right places,” Co-Founder, Nicole Janssen, CEO has said. It is already estimated that the AltaML model can help Alberta Wildfire save between $2 million and $5 million in yearly operating costs.
Another firefighting innovation is AUDREY, the Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction, and synthesis, which is a NASA-developed software application that “performs data fusion and provides tailored situational awareness to first fire responders.” AUDREY collects essential fire data — like temperatures, the presence of gases, how quickly a fire develops, how the items that are burning effect fire growth, how much time firefighters have to respond, and fire flow paths. It then uses that data to help guide first responders through the scenario in the safest and most effective way possible. In the future, the hope is that AUDREY can serve as a guide for first responders and “track an entire team of firefighters, sending relevant signals to individuals while helping to make recommendations for how they could work together.”
Wildfires are accelerating globally as the planet warms with the increasing presence of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Every year with global warming, millions of tons of CO2 is dumped into the environment. Forests take generations to recover from wildfire devastation and their impacts deplete natural resources, and harm lives of firefighters and residents.
As the world continues to heat up, governments are scrambling to get ahead of the flames by tapping into the latest AI technology.
Will AI give us a leg up, there is no question in my mind that it will.
AI /ML Innovations from AltaML, Microsoft, NASA, and The World Economic Forum represent some of the heroic leadership efforts that are being made to detect and help prevent wildfires.
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