As the world grapples with a cascade of environmental challenges, the problem of wildfires has emerged as one of the most significant threats to our economies and the planet.
Over the course of the past year, we have faced a sobering reality as wildfires of unprecedented magnitude have spread across the globe, from idyllic resorts in Greece and Spain to the sprawling wilderness of Canada and the beaches of Hawaii. Despite years of warnings from climate activists and the scientific community, many countries seem to have been caught off-guard at the intensity of recent fires and are wholly unprepared to fight the blazes.
A wake-up call is now needed. This new reality demands an urgent and coordinated response, both locally and globally.
The environmental and economic challenge of wildfires
The environmental implications of these wildfires are deeply concerning and highlight the cyclical path we are stuck in. Increased levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are warming the planet and exacerbating droughts that dry out vegetation, which acts as the perfect fuel for wildfires. With this abundance of fuel, wildfires then destroy vast tracts of forests, which act as vital carbon sinks.
The fires leave in their wake ecological scars that may take generations to heal and release further greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, it is not only the environment that bears the brunt of this crisis; the economic consequences are equally profound.
Wildfires cause $140 billion of financial damages annually. Yet the economic impact of wildfires extends far beyond the charred landscapes. The disruption of critical industries, transportation systems, and supply chains spreads across economies, affecting livelihoods and fiscal stability. Assessments estimating the annualised economic burden from wildfires in the United States alone range from 71.1 to 347.8 billion USD.
As we are beginning to witness, it will only get worse. Additionally, Canada’s emissions in the first seven months of 2023 from wildfires, which have burned an area the size of Greece, have already more than doubled the previous record.
Amidst this turmoil, a critical question emerges: How can we harness innovation and technology to address the escalating wildfire challenge?
Limitations of current wildfire detection strategies
Current strategies for detecting wildfires rely primarily on visually identifying them through satellite technology, forest cameras, or human observers. While they remain an important resource for tracking the progress of a fire, these methods are plagued by notable shortcomings, chiefly their inability to ensure timely detection.
These systems can take well over six hours to pinpoint a wildfire, a timeframe during which the blaze can spread and increase in its intensity and become exceptionally difficult to manage. Moreover, these existing methods rely on the spotting of smoke plumes above the forest canopy, at which point the fire has already spread out of control and necessitates extensive and costly firefighting efforts.
The emergence of Internet of Things (IoT) and sensor technology in forestry
In this era of rapid technological advancement, the convergence of Internet of Things (IoT) technology and advanced sensor systems offers a glimmer of hope in our battle against wildfires.
In the past few years, we've witnessed the widespread adoption of IoT technology across diverse sectors from agriculture to healthcare and energy management. The forest industry is now also benefiting from this widespread adoption. The remarkable progress made in IoT has shattered the constraints of remote connectivity, bringing network access to even the most secluded corners of our planet's forests. This newfound connectivity paves the way for innovative solutions that leverage real-time data and analysis, a critical facet in tackling the wildfire crisis.
Deploying a network of interconnected sensors across forested zones, IoT-driven wildfire detection systems monitor environmental factors and utilise artificial intelligence to analyse the ‘smell’ of the forest. Temperature, air quality and humidity are measured with gas sensors that detect the presence of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and other gases that signify the presence of a wildfire starting.
This early identification capability significantly reduces response times, giving authorities the ability to swiftly allocate resources and dispatch firefighting teams directly to the precise origin of the fire. Detection times are reduced from multiple hours to less than an hour.
Environmental and economic impact of IoT-driven wildfire detection
The implications of this technology for both the environment and economies are profound. Wildfires, often wildly underreported or omitted altogether as they are seen as ‘natural’, are in fact responsible for annual carbon emissions equivalent to all emissions produced by the entire transport sector yearly, from planes and trains to cars. Timely detection and intervention will not only save lives, curb the destruction of ecosystems, and preserve biodiversity, but will also mitigate the release of further emissions.
On the other hand, the cost savings are monumental: Emergency response expenses, property damage, and economic setbacks are minimised when fires are extinguished before they escalate. Existing methods are too focused on how best to respond to a large wildfire and fight it, with little attention given to how they can be avoided in the first place.
Typically, more than half of the expenditures related to wildfires are for the response, whereas planning usually receives only 0.2 per cent of the total budget. The emergence of IoT technology in the forest industry must be accompanied with increased funding for detection.
Charting a technological path forward for effective wildfire management
The battle against climate change is driving forward the implementation of IoT technology, and organisations are routinely finding creative ways to utilise technology to address environmental problems. IoT-enabled gas sensors developed in Germany are already being rolled out across North America and Europe to address the wildfire issue for utilities and governmental bodies.
With 85 per cent of wildfires being human induced, we must advocate for a shift in perspective. The narrative must change. Wildfires are not solely natural disasters, but human problems that can be addressed through technology, innovation, and global collaboration.
This article first featured in IoTNow and can be accessed here.