A slew of good ideas, from high-tech UAVs to just leaving a hose out for firefighters, may help in battling tomorrow’s brush fires.
By Sue Russell, Miller-McCune

fire on a mountain

A view of Los Angeles 2009 Station Fire. (Kevin Dean/Flickr.com)

The war being waged against wildfires from Southern California to Greece and Australia is almost as complex as the infernos themselves. Innovative computer mapping tools advance, as do airborne imaging techniques that can look straight through black smoke for views of emerging dangers no firefighter ever sees. However, some crews battle blazes on bulldozers older than they are, and funding is tight all around. Still, the breakthroughs keep coming.


Innovations with the potential to make a true impact on the future of battling wildfires can come from all quarters, some of them unexpected. An unmanned aerial system, the brainchild of a Hungarian former fire chief, suggests that firefighters themselves could, wearing special helmets, get a bird’s eye view of fire perimeters from the ground. In the wake of some tough years and substantial financial hits, a few insurance companies are now more proactive about protecting their policyholders’ properties. And where crime fighting has benefited from the use of “intelligent maps” that use colored dots to show clusters of activity, such tools are sure to become increasingly important in fighting wildfires, just as social networking will play more of a role in connections and communication.

Small UAVs … With A Difference
Former fire chief Ágoston Réstas once was responsible for protecting Hungary’s renowned Aggtelek National Park. Now, working in partnership with SwissCopter AG of Switzerland, he is busy developing Fire Mission, an innovative system designed to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles around, rather than above, forest fires. It’s so compact, he claims, that it could be used by firefighters on scene and stored on fire trucks when not in use.

Réstas was keen to help make unmanned airplane system reconnaissancemore financially viable for fire departments – certainly, compared to using a Predator drone. His solution is to, “change the reconnaissance plane to a model plane (an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV) and the expert on board to a camera, and let firefighters view real-time images of the fire instantly from the ground.” SwissCopter’s Fire Mission system consists of a mobile cockpit, a backpack and the Peyelot helmet, a headset that can pick up signals within the UAV’s 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) range.

“If you move your head while wearing our helmet,” Réstas explained via e-mail, “the camera on board the UAV will follow your movements in real time. It looks like you are on board the UAV, and you see everything as if you were on board. This way, no time is lost in getting the images and information to the firefighters; they can operate it themselves.”

Still reeling from Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in February 2009, Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre, for one, is closely monitoring all new developments in the unmanned airplane system market.

Réstas certainly has great faith in his creation, believing that with its fixed camera, it will be more stable in strong winds than the new San Diego State University UAVs, with their 4-foot wingspans, and hence better able to capture targeted images of the all-important moving fire front.

Prices will depend on the size and complexity of each tailormade system, but an airplane with an 11- to 16-foot wingspan, along with instruments, sensors, mobile cockpit and the Peyelot control helmet start at $150,000. It’s a substantial amount but, Réstas noted, cheaper than manned aircraft — which would supplant it immediately if a fire grew large enough to require water drops — and cheaper than wildfire damage. According to Restas, Fire Mission will be ready later this year.

Insuring Home Safety
The decline in public funding for firefighter services really set the stage for change in the private sector, a market thought to be worth billions of dollars. With big payouts at stake, it’s natural that home insurers would explore ways to go the extra mile and better protect their money. In that vein, several home insurance companies are now proactively helping defend their policyholders’ properties from wildfires.

In 2008, after learning of the existence of a community of private networks of independent, trained firefighters who could be deployed to policyholders’ homes if wildfire threatened them, Chubb Personal Insurance launched their Wildfire Defense Service. It’s an optional extra service offered free to all Chubb’s homeowners’ insurance policyholders in 13 fire-vulnerable states in the Western United States. Approximately 15,500 policyholders have enrolled thus far.

Now, when a wildfire threatens or burning embers come within 3 miles of an enrolled policyholder’s house, the WDS deploys to the site to provide an extra layer of protection by monitoring the property and, if necessary, taking any extra steps it can to keep it safe.

The coverage is free, although policyholders may have to spend some money to bring their property up to Chubb’s preventive fire safety standards in order to be accepted. Such steps range from cutting low-hanging branches that could ignite, to planting fire-resistant plants closest to the home, to installing an exterior or overhead sprinkler system, which could result in lower premiums.

Chubb’s WDS teams include veteran firefighters, many of whom also do contract work for the government. But although they have wildland fire engines and fire suppression equipment, they are not first responders, emphasized Scott R. Spencer, senior vice president and Chubb’s worldwide appraisal and loss prevention manager. Some local firefighters have expressed concern that such crews might be undertrained or might even need rescuing themselves, so, anxious to defuse any conflict, Chubb has strict policies. WDS personnel never interfere with a neighborhood’s own firefighters or fire department. Locals call the shots, period. And WDS personnel are under strict instructions to defer to them and to stay out of their way if they are on scene.

When Chubb’s 24-hour Montana operations center was the first to spot a fire burning up a hillside and about to threaten a cul-de-sac, its first call was to notify the local incident command of the threat. “We don’t want work in opposition to them or surprise them,” Spencer emphasized. Chubb wants to build bridges, not to create rifts. Spencer worries that not all companies are so vigilant about protocol and that “rogue, maverick responders” could hurt everyone else in this emerging field.

Ideally, Chubb always prefers to focus on early prevention strategies like vegetation management and, say, rooftop sprinkler systems, rather than suppression. “Our intent is to create an environment where an active fire would burn by the property we’ve served,” Spencer explained. “Spraying down a structure with fire retardant gel is a measure of last resort.”

In 2009, the WDS responded to 30 fires in seven states; 22 homes were gelled with a clear fire retardant gel. When the fires died down, WDS personnel helped with the cleanup.

“Any loss that we can prevent not only reduces the angst and difficulty for our customer, which we’d love to avoid on their behalf, but it also saves us a ton of money, right?” said Spencer. “Not having to rebuild a million-dollar house or something is a blessing for both the customer and the carrier.

Chubb claims that the WDS saved 14 homes last May in upscale Santa Barbara (the home of Miller-McCune). Indeed the service and others like it have received some criticism for being elitist; giving another edge to those with money. But Spencer denies that is the case with Chubb. “We insure $100,000 homes and $10,000,000 homes,” he said.

When a covered property is at close quarters to its neighbors, say in a cul-de-sac or a small beachfront location, what affects one home affects the next. So, for example, when in one deployment WDS found a neighbor’s palm tree fronds on fire and blowing ashes, they extinguished the flaming fronds.

“From our enrolled property, we’ll do everything we can to help prevent those sparks and ashes and things from encroaching upon our property,” said Spencer. “If we arrive in an area and a property that’s not insured by Chubb is having a problem, we’ll do everything we can within the law to ensure that nothing gets damaged. Although our first interest is our own enrolled homeowners, our interest, too, is in preventing the spread of fire.”

GPS, GIS, Social Networking and Communication Technology
Intelligent maps make visible what is oh-so invisible in pages and pages of gray data. They vividly paint a picture of what is happening, whether it’s a rash of burglaries in a neighborhood or a rash of calls reporting a temblor. Currently, in a select few areas of the United States a 911 cell phone call reporting an earthquake or earthquake damage can trigger a dot on a map marking the caller’s location.

The state of Indiana is one such area. In 2008, the Indiana Wireless Advisory Board oversaw the creation of a wireless 911 modernization plan, and INdigital Telecom, a Fort Wayne, Ind., cutting-edge local telephone network operator, is a leading authority in next-generation 911 technology.

INdigital shows here (click “View the Visualization”) how a map is built up from the wireless 911 calls coming in to an emergency call center after the state’s April 2008 earthquake. Indiana uses this tool in various ways. It’s used in the State Department of Emergency Management’s command center, and the state highway department uses it to observe accident trends, for example.

University of California, San Diego, and Scripps researchers have analyzed extensive past 911 data, including call data from wildfires and other emergencies, to create a way to display incoming calls visually to quickly show emerging patterns. The San Diego Supercomputer Center is retrospectively analyzing 911 call data from the 2007 California wildfires.

Call load analysis that shows “hotspots,” or sudden clusters of activity within a specific geographical area, can help create a baseline parameter with the potential to alert those monitoring incoming data to abnormally high call rates and also to trigger an early warning system. Researchers in Singapore have found that early deployment of emergency vehicles to areas showing higher call patterns could speed response times, potentially saving lives.

Registering dots, believes the SDSU Viz Lab’s Dr. Eric Frost, “is a much better way to figure out where the damage is than anything in terms of the science of looking at where the earthquake was.”

Even the simplest GPS navigational devices can also prove indispensible in the hands of out-of-town firefighters trying to locate water sources fast while working in unfamiliar territory. Devices like the Spot Personal Tracker, a budget-friendly gadget and service combination used by some hikers in mountainous terrain, also has potential. It sends signals to a satellite where there is no cell tower or pager network. Just as it does for hikers, it could, suggested Viz Lab’s Frost, send “here I am” messages from firefighters back to a server, which would mark a global map with dots or spots giving fire commanders critical firefighter location information at a glance.

SDSU’s Viz Lab is also partnering with the mobile satellite company Inmarsat and its Broadband Global Network to find ways to use the technology to extend real-time geological information system data about fire perimeters, weather and ground conditions to firefighters. The system is designed to give firefighters in remote areas access to the same level of time-critical data received by their peers in more developed areas, Jack Deasy, Inmarsat’s director for Civil Programs, said in a company statement.

Even the U.S. Geological Survey now monitors the microblogging site Twitter after earthquakes and is exploring ways to verify and utilize the information, while researchers analyze data from seismic situations.

Frost strongly believes that social networking and collaboration tools are already changing the face of firefighting, and have the potential to do far more. “What if you said, ‘Everybody download this software on your cell phone, and if you see the fire within a half a mile of you, push 7 on your keypad.’? Then you can say, ‘Well, what if I have 500,000 people who are sensors standing there, and they push the button,’ how would you even begin to image that?”

Home Front
Frost suggests that self-evacuating homeowners could further aid firefighters by leaning a ladder against the front of their home and stretching garden hoses to the curb when leaving their properties. Evacuees could also avoid agonizing waits to see if their homes are still standing, he said, by installing a cheap, battery-powered Web camera, possibly on a mailbox, trained on the house. (Trusted neighbors might point cameras at one another’s homes.) Then, people who are barred from returning to their properties could use their IP addresses and software to log onto their camera’s view and immediately see if their home is intact.