Using Data To Fight Wildfires: An Inside Look - InformationWeek

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9/3/2015
07:06 AM
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Using Data To Fight Wildfires: An Inside Look

Data gathering and analysis are now part of an array of tools used to fight wildfires in the US. Here's what it all looks like.
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(Image: Smokeybear.com)

This has been a record-setting year for the area on the ground lost to wildfires in the United States. Nearly 8 million acres (3,237,485.12 hectares) have burned in seven states. To battle forest fires, more than 20,000 firefighters have worked with an array of tools, from driptorches and pulaskis to bulldozers and aerial tankers.

Within that array of tools, data gathering and analysis play increasingly important roles.

For firefighters, the information that comes from data analysis is critical for a number of reasons. Real-time data alerts firefighters to ignitions at an earlier, more easily winnable stage. The information gives them insight into what a fire is doing underneath a thick layer of smoke. Analysis of the terrain into which a fire is moving offers guidance about what the fire is likely to do next. Modeling software that uses a variety of data sources gives firefighters critical, and potentially life-saving, knowledge about how a certain type of forest fire is likely to behave so that equipment and personnel can be properly positioned to combat the blaze.

If your last thought about wildfires was the last time you saw Smokey Bear on a sign, it's time you updated your information. Our image gallery will help you do just that, and remind you of the firefighters who have lost their lives this year, and every year, battling our nation's wildfires.

Has wildfire had an impact on your life or business this year? Are you involved in fighting wildfires or responding to natural disasters? Let us know your thoughts about the latest trends in data analysis -- and please, stay safe out there.

[Data modeling tools and fire simulators guide firefighters on the frontlines. Read Data, Analytics Help Fight Forest Fires.]

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/3/2015 | 10:07:30 AM
Drones and wildfires
Curt, how can that increase in the number of drone-related accidents in fire zones be prevented, or how could it decrease? -Susan
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/3/2015 | 10:47:33 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Susan, organizations in and out of government are looking for ways to "geo-fence" drones away from active fires or to be able to take control of drones if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is one of those times when technology has run ahead of policy and the ultimate answer is for responsible drone owners to bring peer pressure on everyone to follow the rules and keep the skies safe for everyone. I suspect, though, that we'll see some remarkable over-reaction before we see reasonable solutions.
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
9/3/2015 | 11:40:36 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
I think using data-driven approach to fight wildfire is the right approach. However, some over-reactions and calibrations are needed before really viable solution is reached.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/3/2015 | 12:43:36 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Curt, most likely you are right. Speaking of keeping the skies safe for everyone, there is a sign in Regent's Park, in London, that says that flying drones there is not allowed. I suspect the same rule applies to the rest of the Royal Gardens. I took a picture of the sign because it was so interesting at the same time I was wondering how many people would fly a drone there, and for what reason. Maybe one of those drone cameras, perhaps. -Susan
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/3/2015 | 6:44:49 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Curt, I see a lot of potential for drones to set back fires, data collection and releasing fire retardant. However, the use cases will only work if it is coordinated and the tools are in the hands of the firefighters. It will require some time before technology progresses and budgets are allocated to gain these benefits until then, I think anti-drone technology will need to be utilized.

I wonder if land drones can be safely utilized for search and rescue during a disaster.  
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
9/3/2015 | 7:50:56 PM
The HotShots still work hard to earn their grub
Curtis, Nice show of the kind of information used in wild fire fighting today. It's a huge assist to the people responsible for utilizing the limited resources. Gathering the thermal information from the air is vital because many wild fire fronts obscure their speed, movement and direction under thick smoke. Knowledge in depth of the weather is another huge assist. But there's still a lot of grunt work on the ground by HotShots and other front line fire fighters. Hats off to them.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/3/2015 | 9:29:03 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Susan, I can see folks with quad-copters searching out any open space in an urban area as big as London. I have to imagine there's a lot of interest in flying over Hyde Park, too -- and a lot of official interest in making sure it doesn't happen.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/3/2015 | 9:42:45 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Brian, I didn't hear anyone talking about using drones to gather data. There are two planes that do that, but only two for the whole U.S. I strongly suspect that this time next year we'll be looking at some drones run by NWS or USFWS. From the "civilian" side, it's amazing how far following the advice "Don't be a jerk" would take us.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/3/2015 | 9:49:32 PM
Re: The HotShots still work hard to earn their grub
Thanks, @Charlie. And you're right: There's so much that isn't visible from the ground due to smoke and ash. Being able to see where combustion is actually happening is vital. One of the things that didn't make it into the piece was one of my sources talking about the accuracy of the thermal images -- they can distinguish between burning wood and hot rocks that have been in the middle of a fire.

I have nothing but admiration for all the wilderness fire fighters. We've seen once again that even with all our technology their work can be deadly but a lot of people are working hard to keep them as safe (and effective) as possible.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/4/2015 | 11:55:39 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Curt. You are absolutely correct. Civilians should gain as much safety information as possible before deploying drones for productivity or fun. At the same time, drone manufactures should follow a high level of standardization and create documentation (a brochure and a link, etc.) to provide information about the dos and don'ts of drone ownership.
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