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
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.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2015 | 1:12:27 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Curt, in the case of Hyde Park I would understand it for its proximity to Buckingham Palace. -Susan
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/6/2015 | 12:41:56 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Susan,

If you are'nt aware(I believe you are);London is home to not just the Wealthiest Bankers in the world but also to the Wealthiest Footballers (and Russian & Arab Oligarchs) in the world.

All those folks live close to and around Hyde Park and frequently access that area for Leisure.

They are also constantly worried about Paparazzis.

Imagine what kind of menace Paparazzis will be if They have free access to Drones???

Recipe for massive disaster if ever there was one.

Don't be surprised Drones are banned there now.

 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2015 | 12:56:53 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Ashish, I was talking about Regent's Park, not Hyde Park, which is a different park. I don't believe the reason for not allowing drones in the park is related to any paparazzi activity. In any case, there is nothing that can stop paparazzis, that's how they killed Princess Diana, they don't care about any rules anywhere. -Susan
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2015 | 11:08:48 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Susan,

What you say is quite right(nothing can stop the Paparazzi) but you can definitely slow them down.

This is precisely what these Drone Restrictions are aiming to do today in London.

And lets not forget that London is the most under-surveillance city in the world today;so the Authorities want to do everything they can to keep every resident under the nose of their thumb(so more such restrictions).

Only someone totally naive would claim that the UK is a part of the "Free World".

LOL!!

Sad but true reality.

 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/7/2015 | 11:22:16 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Ashish, in a couple of weeks' time, when I'm back in London, I'll find out the reason for the drone restriction in Regent's Park. Because, I don't think it has to do with any paparazzi activity. :/ Unless, you know that is a fact. The UK is part of the free world. :) -Susan
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2015 | 11:34:12 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Susan,

All the best on your Travels!

Having seen and understood London better I already know its not a part of the " Free world" as you put it!

 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/7/2015 | 11:41:01 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Ashish, thanks. :) What part of the world is really, really a free world? -Susan
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2015 | 1:09:14 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Ashish, now I see Curt mentioned Hyde Park in his comment to me. But I was talking about Regent's Park before (see previous comments), not Hyde Park. Most likely Curt mentioned Hyde Park for its proximity to Buckingham Palace. I don't believe any footballer, wealthy Russians, or Arabs will have more protection that the Queen herself. -Susan
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2015 | 11:12:52 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Susan,

You seriously don't want to understate the amount of Influence The Billions of Dollars of wealth that these Russians and Arabs have holed up in London.

The impact on not just House Prices but also Basic Economy will be catastrophic if they are forced to leave London because of incessantly nosy Paparazzis.

I am not surprised the Government took this action there.

 
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/7/2015 | 11:34:12 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Ashish, I am not. But I simply don't believe the restriction in Regent's Park is due to paparazzi activity. I am repeating myself here. :/ I can tell you one thing, Monaco is more attractive for paparazzi activity than London is. -Susan
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2015 | 10:28:04 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Susan, proximity to the Palace is certainly an issue, but I was really talking about any activity that requires open space in the middle of one of the world's larger cities. Whether we're talking about flying a quad-copter or letting your dog run off a leash, any activity that requires a large, relatively un-regulated area is going to be challenging in an urban setting.

Or maybe not. I'll admit that I don't live in a large urban area, so this might be one of the incorrect presumtions that exist among those of us who live "out in the sticks."
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2015 | 1:18:43 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Curt, in fact, I just thought about the proximity with the Palace after Ashish's mention of the paparazzis, which I don't believe have anything to do with the drone restriction in Regent's Park. I agree more with your idea. If everyone is going to fly their drones in places like a public park it could cause problems to the ones trying to have a quiet picnic in a green urban area. Maybe things will change when there are some more regulations, or flying drones becomes a responsible activity. Until then, I will try to find out the reason/s behind the restriction, so we can actually have a discussion based on facts. I will let you know what my Sherlock Holms self found out. :) By the way, Sherlock's hone on Baker Street is just two blocks from there. :D -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.  
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.
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.
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/6/2015 | 12:32:59 PM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Brian,

I was wondering why can't ordinary Homeowners do more on their own to protect their properties from such Forest fires?

Like set up an isolation zone around your home(like in the old days when we used to have moats around castles).

No way will a Massive Forest fire be able to jump over such deep moats especially if they are filled with Water.

There could be many more such things which Homeowners could do today .

I don't cause I don't live in such an Area(which suffers from Forest Fires) but I am extremely confident a lot more can be done today individually and collectively as well.

 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2015 | 6:32:50 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Ashu001, agreed, there is a lot that a homeowner can and should do to protect their home and the surrounding neighborhood. Technology has improved many folds during the last few years, information is available and the market has created a number of specialized consulting firms that can help in the protection process.

The process requires a lot of research to confidentially protect a house from wildfires or neighborhood fires. The Black Saturday fires from 2009 created a lot of destruction. A few homeowners managed to protect their homes but, a few were not able to do the same. Heat resistant roof tiles and water sprinkler systems were installed by many households but, this did not protect against horizontal embers that fire creates through its own micro weather system that can break windows and/or ignite walls.  
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2015 | 11:18:59 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Brian,

I really appreciate what you had to say HERE-

The process requires a lot of research to confidentially protect a house from wildfires or neighborhood fires. The Black Saturday fires from 2009 created a lot of destruction. A few homeowners managed to protect their homes but, a few were not able to do the same. Heat resistant roof tiles and water sprinkler systems were installed by many households but, this did not protect against horizontal embers that fire creates through its own micro weather system that can break windows and/or ignite walls.  

My question was more along the lines of Why more folks are'nt doing it today?

Why depend on the State for everything under the sun(The Californian way of doing things).

If this was Texas,enterprising Texans would have figured out what works and sorted out the situation in next to no time.

After all its not like most Californians are stressed for cash today-When they can spend thousands of Dollars on Luxury Cars ,Granite Countertops and Fancy Foriegn Vacations ;Why not spend it on something which has more lasting value for you and your family personally?


 

 

 

 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/8/2015 | 4:30:12 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Ashu001, that is a great point and I am in favor of homeowners to take on an active role in the protection against natural disasters. This includes investing in automated systems that will be activated during a natural disaster.

If it is a manual system a number of dilemmas are created. For instance, if a homeowner has invested $10,000 into a manual protection system it is still no match against the economies of scale that firefighters have at their side (the investment, expertise, sensors everywhere, etc.), if the firefighters say that evacuation is important -- it is important.

The benefits are created if automated systems are in place, the systems become complementary to the efforts of firefighters and if firefighters say that evacuation is important the systems would still be operating to try and minimize loss to property. 
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
10/5/2015 | 6:10:21 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Brian,

I really respect and appreciate your statement here-if the firefighters say that evacuation is important -- it is important.

And No,I am trying to say that Homeowners should take on 70 foot tall Flames themselves but if they put in some more Investment into their existing homes they could do a whole lot more to ensure Fires don't burn as madly as they do now.

Especially when it comes to Providing Fires outlets as well as lack of fuel(for burning) these are both issues entirely in the hands of Homeowners.


If the same Homeowners can spend Thousands of Dollars on a Granite Kitchen Top or a fancy new Car every 2-3 years in the Driveway (routine in California today) ;why can't they spend some money on taking care of their home from Forest Fires?

Sounds like a No-Brainer to me personally.

 

 
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2015 | 10:33:33 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Ashish, I think that a big part of the reason that more homeowners don't create fire-breaks is aesthetics. If you plow up a workable fire-break and remove all the fuel from around the house, you're left with a wide swath of dirt. If you have time and access to a bulldozer you can do that when fire threatens, but most homeowners (and homeowner associations) don't want to look at a fire break all the time.

Interestingly enough, I think that some of the landscaping options that are becoming common because of the drought in California will turn out to be more fire-resistant than the earlier all-green landscaping.

This is one of the things we face in Florida every few years when we have an active fire season. People say they love the "natural look" -- just not in their own neighborhood, which they want to look like the 14th hole at Augusta National Golf Course.
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
10/5/2015 | 6:30:03 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
Curt,

That's exactly what sums up the Common Thinking all across America-Aesthetics or more colloquially put-"It should look Good".

Even if that thing has Zero Functionality(as in the case of all those Lawns which the State Government is forcing homeowners to rip it out bigtime now in California).

Its a question I have been meaning to ask some Senior Pros previously -Why Does'nt California recycle Sewage Water(after treating it obviously) for Landscaping/Agriculture use?

Its being done extremely successfully in Water-Scarce regions globally like Israel,the UAE,India and Singapore.

Singapore is very much the Pioneer in this space through their NEWater Program.

What most people don't know is that over 35% of the Tap Water that ordinary Singaporeans consume is actually their own Sewage Water after it has been through the whole Filteration,Treatment Program.

Why can't California do something similar instead fighting with other neighbouring states for the Colorado's water or just pumping Ground-water like crazy (which is causing Ground to sink a few meters every year) use The Sewage Water from LA,San Francisco,Orange County ,etc for starters for Agriculture today.

This is the alarming result of Pumping more Groundwater out than is naturally sustainable currently-www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-08-19/california-sinking-as-farmers-suck-groundwater-dry

 

The only one Active Water Recycling project I have seen is the one where Waste water from Oil Industry use gets treated and is then used to Grow Almonds in San Joaquin Valley and Kern County-business.financialpost.com/news/energy/california-farms-turn-to-big-oils-drilling-wastewater-to-grow-crops

&


economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/pact-with-devil-california-farmers-use-oil-firms-water/articleshow/47933770.cms

I kinda feel using Treated Sewage Water is maybe Healthier than Almonds Grown in water laced with Benzene & Acetone currently?

Regards

Ashish.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2015 | 10:18:36 AM
Re: Drones and wildfires
@Brian, I've seen a number of courses crop up to teach drone operation. I took an intensive one-day course in the desert outside Las Vegas before I got my first quad-copter and I spend a fair amount of my time at the controls practicing maneuvers. I want to be a safe operator because I think that's the way to enjoy multi-rotor copters for the long term. And I have to admit, I do like the video and still images I get from my quad!
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 | 9:49:32 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.
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
9/6/2015 | 12:38:06 PM
Re: The HotShots still work hard to earn their grub
curt,

The US Army+DoD has plenty of unmanned Soldiers/Robots which can do the heavy lifting for fire-fighthing(instead of warmongering) today.

Why does'nt the DoD Get involved here?

I suspect it has more to do with the Heavily  Unionized Nature of the Firefighting workforce in California.

Their corruption(alongwith that of Californian Cops) is legendary Globally when it comes to getting ridiculously large-sized Taxpayer funded Salaries and Pensions at the expense of all other Ordinary California residents.

 

 
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2015 | 10:24:35 AM
Re: The HotShots still work hard to earn their grub
@Ashu001, the military drones could provide some instrumentation, though I'm not aware of one that would make a great air-tanker. That could certainly change.

And I think a big reason why we don't see more active-duty military deployed in fire fighting has a great deal to do with our constitutional (and long-term legal) constraints on our military being active on U.S. soil. With the exception of the Corp of Engineers, it's complicated to involve the military in civilian matters.

And I'm not sure how California politics works with the whole picture. Many of the firefighters are employees of (or contracted with) the Forest Service. I'm frankly amazed at how well the Forest Service, National Park Service, and other federal agencies work together on fire issues: A lot of the jurisdictional issues I see in other activities don't seem to be big actors in this, and that's a very good thing.
Ashu001
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Ashu001,
User Rank: Ninja
10/5/2015 | 11:19:30 AM
Re: The HotShots still work hard to earn their grub
Curt,

I am guessing that's why we are hearing all those stories about Militiarized Police here in America.

Its beyond stunning how heavily armed our cops are currently!!!

I am sure automated Fire-prevention solutions will achieve a considerable degree of success here.

As for as the actual Fire-fighting duties ;yes an automated will end up doing a lot of Good work here as well.

 

 
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
9/5/2015 | 12:30:09 AM
Re: The HotShots still work hard to earn their grub
@Charlie, great point about knowledge that is related to the spread of fire because, the right information can help a homeowner to make the right decision. These sensors have helped individuals to understand that the speed of fire is increased due to the slope of the land as well. And embers from fires can travel more than a mile. Hence, if the weather, location and fuel source, etc., are conducive then, reaction time would be extremely limited. 
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
9/14/2015 | 3:52:00 PM
another data set
Another data set is the ash generated by the passing wildfires. It's been settling on the polar ice caps and making the ice hold more heat, thereby melting faster than scientists previously predicted. I'd be interested to know how much more ash and soot has been pushed into the atmosphere from this huge spike in wildfires. It makes it not just about homes in California, but has enough far reaching effects to reach around the entire globe.
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