TED Vancouver: Aerospace executive talks new tools to help fight wildfires from space
With “mega fires” of more than 40,000 hectares becoming more prevalent, George Whitesides says better satellites are among the innovative tools firefighters need to cope with them. Author of the article: Derrick Penner in the Vancouver Sun
Former aerospace executive George Whitesides has ideas for bringing new tools to combat the risk of mega fires — wildfire conflagrations greater than 40,000 hectares that are happening with increasing frequency.
Those tools include better satellites and more terrestrial remote sensing technologies for firefighters to use in decision making, which Whitesides touched on during a presentation at the TED Talks conference Wednesday in Vancouver
Mega fires can threaten aquifers, incinerate biodiversity “and even cause forest conversion,” where flames scorch the landscape so deeply that trees don’t grow back, Whitesides said. Then they also have a huge impact on carbon emissions.
“I think there’s a lot more we could be doing to support frontline firefighters with technology,” Whitesides, the former Virgin Galactic CEO said of his reinvention as “firetech” entrepreneur.
He added that firefighting agencies typically don’t have a lot of money for research, so he’s using his venture-capital startup Convective Capital to direct private financing into remote drone-based systems and satellite technology.
“We’ve been talking with different companies and entities who are thinking about ways to improve that radically … by a factor of 100, or more,” Whitesides said.
B.C.-based wildfire expert Mike Flannigan agreed that satellite imagery has become an important decision-making tool for firefighting agencies recently and they are all looking for better information as climate change ramps up fire risks across Western Canada.
“Unwanted fires are put out by boots on the ground,” said Flannigan, the B.C. research chair in fire science at Thompson Rivers University. “Technology helps make the decision where to put those boots, but it’s the boots that do the work.”
“But decision making is critical,” Flannigan said.
To that point, Whitesides’ TED presentation was less about technology and more about a holistic approach to wildfire management, which includes “building resilient landscapes.”
That means letting some fires burn, at appropriate times, to clear the forest of the accumulations of dry brush and scrub that act as tinder for mega fires.
And Whitesides said higher-resolution satellites, coupled with remote sensors on drones, can help managers decide which fires pose a danger and need to be fought and which are beneficial enough to let burn.
In B.C., Flannigan said managers refer to that as a “modified response,” and Canadian authorities are leading their own technological effort to improve the information used in making decisions on when to do it.
Federal authorities, last December, green lit the construction and launch of WildFireSat, an initiative of the Canadian Space Agency, Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, which is scheduled for 2029.
And Flannigan added that drones, which can make aerial observations at much higher resolution, are being used more often to generate information that complements satellite images. Managers frequently fly drones at night to measure fire temperatures and map perimeters more accurately.
“It’s a blend of art and science,” Flannigan said “We still have a long way to go and this is where decision making tools, early warning systems — predictive services, as they call it — that’s where we’re moving.”
Whitesides centred most of his presentation on California where he lives, but said in an interview that the U.S. and Canada have a shared interest in improving wildfire response.
He pointed to Canada’s huge expanse of Northern boreal forest, which is a globally important carbon sink.
“But if we’re heading toward the future, where they’re going to be more mega fires, those forests have the potential to really release huge amounts of carbon,” Whitesides said.
Flannigan said climate change is delivering Western Canada fire seasons that start earlier, last longer and weather that consistently generates more lightning that sparks more fires.
He added that managers are nervously watching to see how this season will unfold with drought conditions holding over from last year in much of the province and anticipated El Nino weather conditions that could deliver warmer, drier weather this summer.
“So, rolling the dice, throwing darts, crystal ball gazing — (if we have) hot, dry windy weather in the summer, we will have a challenge,” Flannigan said.
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