Fighting Wildfires Goes High Tech With Drones, Sensors And Satellites
As the fire season looms, researchers are looking to new technology to move beyond ‘detecting fires with people in towers and binoculars’. Fighting Wildfires Goes High Tech With Drones, Sensors And Satellites
In October, a sensor mounted on a 28-foot pole in the Australian countryside detected small particles in the air near a timber plantation and sent out an alert.
When plantation staff arrived, they found a small man-made fire that was already under control, but the incident offered a glimpse of how authorities hope to use new technology to battle wildfires that have grown increasingly intense in recent years.
As a new fire season begins in Australia—a recent wildfire ravaged about half of Fraser Island in the country’s east—researchers are looking to rely more on technology to find blazes quickly and better predict their path.
A monthslong government inquiry into the devastating 2019-2020 fire season in Australia, which killed more than two dozen people and burned an area bigger than Washington state, concluded that authorities need to be better prepared and recommended that officials work with the private sector to develop new technology.
“We’re still detecting fires with people in towers and binoculars. We’ve got to move beyond that,” said Leigh Kelson, program director at FireTech Connect in Australia, a government-funded effort to help startups develop new firefighting technologies. Firefighters also rely on the equivalent of 911 calls to find new blazes.
The ideas researchers are exploring include fitting drones with lasers that can map dry areas at higher fire risk and whether satellites can detect extreme fire behavior.
Last fire season, authorities were surprised by how quickly the blazes spread and how long they burned, which they later attributed to a prolonged drought that had left the land parched with plenty of dry vegetation to fuel the flames.
Last year was Australia’s hottest year on record, according to the government’s Bureau of Meteorology, and fires are projected to become more intense and frequent because of climate change.
Parts of Australia have received more rainfall in recent months, and the current fire season isn’t expected to be as severe. Still, firefighters have struggled to control some of the blazes.
The fire on Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site, prompted officials to tell some residents to evacuate homes in the path of the flames. On Sunday, firefighters said rainfall had finally helped to contain that blaze, which started in mid-October.
Other regions, including the western U.S. and even in frosty Siberia, have experienced particularly intense fire seasons recently, stretching global firefighting resources and making early detection of fires more crucial. Fires left unchecked can create their own weather systems, raining embers down on nearby communities and pushing dangerous smoke into big cities and to neighboring countries.
The sensor that picked up the October fire near the timber plantation is one of more than 40 in a network that covers an area nearly double the size of New York City in Australia’s Victoria state.
The solar-powered, cylinder-shaped sensors are packed with instruments including optical and thermal cameras, flame detectors, particle counters for air quality, and ground-vibration readers. The data are publicly available online in real-time.
Attentis Pty. Ltd., a Melbourne, Australia-based company, finished installing the network in early 2019 as a pilot project to demonstrate the technology. They didn’t get much use detecting fires last season because the blazes were too far away.
Cameron McKenna, managing director at the company, said he is in talks to install similar sensor networks to improve fire detection capabilities in other parts of the country. “We use multiple methods of detection as opposed to a single method,” he said.
In Canberra, Australia’s capital, researchers are working with a local firefighting agency to install video cameras on four fire towers. One tower will also have a thermal camera installed.
A computer program will scan images from the thermal camera to detect fires, and a person will monitor the other video feeds.
Researchers plan to develop a computer program to automatically scan the video feeds too, said Marta Yebra, director of the Australian National University Bushfire Initiative. The idea is to determine whether the cameras detect new fires more quickly than the old-fashioned way of a person in a fire tower, she said.
Rohan Scott, who leads the rural fire service in the Canberra area, said people in towers on average spot fires within seven minutes of ignition. But the towers are staffed only on high-risk days.
“If we can get detection 24/7 but at the same speed as a human-manned fire tower, then I think that would be a good outcome,” he said. “Anything quicker than that would be a definite bonus.”
Other ideas involve using drones fitted with lasers to create detailed maps so authorities know which areas have more dry vegetation and present a higher fire risk. One recent effort involved researchers poring over satellite imagery in an attempt to build a model for detecting extreme fire behavior from orbit. They found that changes in smoke colors could help predict fire behavior, according to the Minderoo Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsored the research.
One company, Fireball.International Pty. Ltd., says its machine-learning method can detect smoke from ground-based cameras and fires from heat signatures on thermal-satellite images. Its system is already being used by a big power company in California, and Fireball plans to begin pilot programs in Australia this fire season, executives said.
A prototype of the system detected smoke from fires within 15 minutes of ignition, while averaging less than one false positive a day per camera, according to an analysis published in a peer-reviewed journal in January. It said there is room for improvement.
“People are beginning to realize, ‘Gosh, we really can detect a fire in the first five minutes,’” said Tim Ball, an academic and co-founder of the company who is also a former firefighter.
Wildfires Receding Give Globe Rare Bit of Positive Climate Data
The amount of forest that went up in flames in 2020 fell by 10% compared to the year before.
The dystopian images of wildfires ravaging vast swathes of woodland around the globe belie a rare positive signal for the Earth’s climate — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by burning forests actually fell in 2020.
That’s the conclusion of atmospheric scientists at the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. They use satellites to take pictures and collect air-quality data from hotspots around the world. Despite this year’s widely-shared images of the raging infernos which disrupted economies from Australia, to the U.S. west coast and Siberia, the amount of land that went up in flames declined.
“While areas such as the Arctic Circle and western United States suffered wildfires of unprecedented intensity and emissions, 2020 was one of the lowest years for active fires at the global scale,” the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service reported on Monday. “This has led to a further decline in emissions, following a continuing trend of the past 17 years. “
To reach their conclusions, the scientists used satellites to measure the amount of heat that was radiated by fire hotspots around the globe. Near-real-time data and observations are used to calculate the amount of carbon emitted globally. About 10% less carbon dioxide, some 1,690 million metric tons, was discharged from burning forest fires in 2020 compared to the year before.
“While 2020 has certainly been a devastating year for wildfires in the most badly-affected hotspots, emissions across the world have been lower due to better fire management and mitigation measures,” said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist and wildfire expert at Copernicus.
Fires emitted an estimated 79.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in California this year through Sept. 14. They released 26.8 million metric tons in Oregon and 5.1 million metric tons in Washington, according to CAMS data. Wildfire emissions in 2020 for the whole of the U.S. reached 200 million metric tons, almost a third higher than all of 2019.
Blazes in the Arctic Circle, which experienced the worst-ever fire season this year, emitted 244 million metric tons of carbon dioxide during the first six months of the year.
“Wildfires in the worse affected areas were of record intensity as a result of warmer, drier conditions,” Parrington said. “This resulted in increased pollutants being carried thousands of miles, affecting air quality for millions of people.”
The Effects Of Massive Wildfires Can Reach The Stratosphere And Linger For Months
Australian smoke plumes created an ozone-layer hole, but the extent of damage from such novel weather events remains unclear.
Massive wildfires are driving smoke clouds to record heights in the stratosphere, U.S. and European scientists say. What they don’t know yet is just how damaging the effects might be.
From the Arctic to Australia, unusual storms powered by wildfires have spewed smoke to altitudes well above where commercial jets usually fly. In the stratosphere, which stretches from around 6 to 31 miles above the Earth, the smoke has affected the air across thousands of miles and blocked sunlight on a “planetary scale,” mimicking the effects of a volcanic eruption, the scientists said. They said the soaring wildfire plumes are a byproduct of recent years of supersized wildfires, in which climate changes caused by rising temperatures have played a major role, most scientific experts agree.
“It is a new form of severe weather,” said David Peterson, a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Monterey, Calif.
In the highest of such plumes so far, Australian wildfires this past January generated firestorms that spewed a swirling vortex of smoke as wide as the state of Montana up to a record 21 miles high. The smoke circled the world twice before dissipating in April, according to two new independent studies. The scientists tracked the plume using sensors on four satellites and aboard the International Space Station.
Their data shows that the smoke blocked sunlight to an extent never before recorded from wildfires, comparable to the cumulative effect of all the moderate volcanic eruptions of the past 30 years. Moreover, the plume contained enough noxious fumes to etch a temporary hole in the planet’s protective ozone layer, an international team of scientists from France, the U.K. and Canada reported in the journal Communications Earth & Environment in September.
“That Australian smoke plume was really a jaw-dropping phenomenon,” said lead author Sergey Khaykin, who studies the stratosphere at the Latmos laboratory of atmospheric research and space observations at Sorbonne University in France. “We should be expecting more of these events as the climate warms.”
The fire-induced thunderstorms, known technically as pyrocumulonimbus events, are becoming more frequent.
In the past three years, these firestorms occurred during wildfires in places such as Portugal, South Africa and Argentina where they were previously unknown. Wildfire storms this fall in California and Colorado sent smoke plumes up to 10 miles high that altered air quality as far away as Europe. The 21-mile-high Australian plume earlier this year was the third major outburst of wildfire smoke to set a stratospheric record since 2009, each one progressively higher and more severe.
“It appears as though the intensity of the major events is getting stronger,” said NRL meteorologist George Kablick III in Washington, D.C., who led a team of researchers studying the Australian smoke plume. They reported their findings earlier this year in Geophysical Research Letters.
Taken together, the new research offers evidence of how the pollution and smoke from regional wildfires driven by severe droughts and heat waves can become a global event, affecting people far from the scene of a major conflagration, the scientists said. On average, smoke from burning forests and grasslands results in an estimated 339,000 additional deaths a year world-wide due to smoke inhalation, says an international research team that conducted a systematic global health study in 2012 of air pollution from wildfires.
The carbon particles and other pollutants in the smoke can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases, such as asthma or bronchitis, and worsen diabetes, particularly among children and the elderly, according to the American Lung Association.
Even so, no one knows yet whether there are any long-term consequences from injecting so much smoke into the stratosphere. “There are a lot of unknowns,” said the NRL’s Dr. Peterson, who studied pyrocumulonimbus clouds that formed during the 2019 Williams Flats Fire in Washington state.
To generate high-altitude smoke, these thunderstorms require a mixture of extreme drought, hellish heat waves, moisture and strong surface winds, according to meteorologists who study fire-related weather. When conditions are right, the hot updraft from burning woodlands and brush can supercharge the towering anvil-shaped thunderhead of a major storm, sucking up smoke at ground level and speeding it to extreme heights.
“The fire heating drives the updraft that feeds the storm. This ends up acting like a giant chimney,” Dr. Peterson says.
In Australia and elsewhere, such conditions are in line with a long-term increase in extreme heat events linked to a century of rising regional temperatures, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s “2018 State of the Climate report.” Globally, the last five years have been the warmest since modern record-keeping began, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Generally, fire seasons in many parts of the world are getting longer and more frequent, according to a 2015 analysis of 35 years of meteorological data by the U.S. Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory. Overall, 54% of the world’s vegetated areas experienced long fire weather seasons more frequently between 1996 and 2013 as compared with 1979-1996, the study published in Nature Communications showed.
The fire-driven thunderstorms were first identified about 20 years ago. But their impact on the stratosphere was “deemed small” until 2017, scientists said.
In that year, wildfires raging through Canada’s Pacific Northwest triggered a cluster of seven fire-driven thunderstorms in a single five-hour period. Together, they lofted record amounts of smoke high into the stratosphere, where there is no rain to wash the clouds away, the scientists said.
At that altitude, the wildfire plume blocked more sunlight than the 2009 eruption of Russia’s Sarychev Peak, an active volcano in the Kuril Islands northeast of Japan. That eruption spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that commercial airline flights had to skirt the region to keep engines from choking on ash intake.
But the stratospheric plume from Australia earlier this year was even larger, “a super-outbreak,” in Dr. Peterson’s words.
As New Year’s Eve approached last December, Australia was already in its 35th month of extreme drought—the country’s hottest and driest period in modern times, scientists said. Wildfires had consumed 14.3 million acres—about one-fifth of the country’s temperate forests. Temperatures topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas. Wind speeds gusted up to 80 mph.
On New Year’s Day, fire scientists counted 18 fire-driven thunderstorms along the Australian coast of New South Wales, the scientists said.
By Jan. 7, the soaring embers, ash and soot from so many firestorms compacted itself into one self-contained bubble of fumes. Warmed by the sun, it started to spin. Like a balloon, it rose ever higher in the air as it circled the world, the scientists said. All told, the plume injected between 300,000 tons and 400,000 tons of carbon-rich smoke into the stratosphere, the scientists said.
“This plume was unprecedented in size, scale and longevity,” said Dr. Kablick. “It was something we had never seen at this intensity before. I keep using the word unprecedented, but it’s true.”
A Wildfire Is Pushing California Toward The Brink Of Blackouts
A wildfire raging uncontrollably across southern Oregon has knocked out three electrical lines so critical to the stability of grids in the western U.S. that California has warned of rotating blackouts and Nevada faced a power emergency.
The fast-moving Bootleg fire crippled a key transmission system known as the California Oregon Intertie that the Golden State has depended on for years for electricity imports.
Making matters worse: The takedown of the intertie has had a knock-on effect on another key import hub known as the Pacific DC Intertie that brings in electricity from the Pacific Northwest, California’s grid operator said in a media briefing Saturday. Power supplies to the area covered by the grid have been reduced by as much as 3,500 megawatts because of the fire.
After days of pushing state residents to limit energy use with the risk of rolling blackouts, Californians got a break Sunday as the grid operator said conditions were expected to be stable. With transmission lines knocked out by the fire still out of service, and high temperatures expected to persist as demand picks up in the new week, another statewide conservation push through a so-called flex alert has been issued for Monday.
“If demand still outstrips supply after a Flex Alert is in effect, the ISO could take the infrequent step of ordering California utilities to spread power outages of relatively short duration to effectively extend available electricity as much as possible,” it said in a statement Sunday.
The fact that a single wildfire has brought America’s most populous and affluent state to the brink of blackouts is among the most powerful demonstrations yet of how vulnerable the world’s power grids have become to the effects of climate change.
Extreme heat, drought and dry conditions globally have shrunk hydropower reserves, driven up electricity demand to record levels and touched off some of the worst wildfire seasons in modern history.
Climate change is “forcing us to do things we never imagined” at this time of the year, said Elliot Mainzer, who took over as chief executive officer of grid manager California Independent System Operator nine months ago. The agency is “anticipating what could be a very long and hot summer,” he said.
California has emerged as the epicenter of climate disasters in the U.S. Wildfires burned an unprecedented 4.3 million acres across the state last year, killing 33 people and scorching nearly 10,500 structures.
Last August California suffered its first rolling blackouts since the U.S. West energy crisis two decades ago because of extremely hot weather. And in a foreshadowing of what was to come: Days before this year’s summer officially began, high temperatures forced the California ISO to make an unusually early call for conservation, allowing the region to duck another round of rotating outages.
“Bottom line is we took everything we learned from last summer, and we still came into this summer thinking our issues were going to primarily be associated with August and September,” Mainzer said, but “we had the first major heat wave four days before the official beginning of summer.”
On Friday evening, the grid operator took the rare step of ordering a Stage 2 emergency — one step away from rotating blackouts — to cope with the loss of import capacity. Energy conservation helped the state avert a crisis. But as temperatures rose yet again and supplies fell off the grid Saturday, Mainzer said, “We’re going to need more. Honestly, I think we are going to need more response than we saw last night.”
The grid operator issued an all-clear late Saturday after issuing a flex alert. Earlier in the day, Governor Gavin Newsom also signed an order to free up more energy capacity to help alleviate the supply crunch.
California wasn’t the only state facing power woes. Nevada’s power system was among those in the region that also faced emergency levels on Friday evening, said Mark Rothleder, California’s ISO’s chief operating officer. On top of managing California’s grid, the agency serves as a reliability coordinator and is responsible for monitoring conditions across the western region.
Nevada utility NV Energy Inc. said it wasn’t forced to resort to blackouts, but the company was calling for customers to conserve over the weekend.
Exactly when the Bootleg fire would subside enough to re-energize the California Oregon Intertie remains to be seen.
The Bootleg fire had burned through 143,607 acres of southern Oregon and still zero percent of it was contained as of Sunday, forcing evacuations in Klamath County and shutting sections of a national forest, according to an update from the U.S. Fire Service.
Temperatures across California were forecast to remain high into Monday. After hitting 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) Sunday, Sacramento is expected to slip to a high of 94 degrees on Monday.
To Fight Wildfires, California Turns To A Family With A Fleet Of $8,000-an-Hour Helicopters
Coulson Aviation’s night-flying, water-siphoning Chinooks are on call to battle blazes on four continents.
The fire began shortly before dawn on Oct. 26, when a spark from a telecommunications line landed in the scrubby grass and sagebrush of Santiago Canyon. As the day grew hotter and the winds stronger, the blaze raged across hundreds of acres of eastern Orange County, Calif., filling the sky with smoke to the coast, 15 miles away.
The fire intensified and spread west toward the residential neighborhoods of Irvine and Lake Forest; two firefighters were so severely burned they had to be induced into comas, ultimately spending months in the hospital. Brian Fennessy, the county fire chief, helped the police evacuate more than 75,000 residents and at times wielded an extinguisher to put out spot fires.
Southern California is the most technologically advanced area in the world for fighting wildfires. Fennessy could call on dozens of fire engines and more than 2,200 firefighters from Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. He had on hand a firefighting air force of about a dozen helicopters and planes.
But the Santa Ana winds fanning the flames made it impossible for the fleet to fly. Without the help of planes and helicopters, firefighters predicted that the Silverado Fire, as it came to be known, would roll over more than 2,000 homes within 24 hours.
Weeks earlier, Fennessy had signed a contract with Coulson Aviation Inc., an aerial firefighting company based in British Columbia. Coulson had recently outfitted a huge Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter with equipment that could drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire-retardant chemicals—about 10 times what the more commonly used Bell 412 helicopter can unload—in a little more than two seconds.
Unlike a fixed-wing firebomber such as a Boeing 747 or Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which can carry similar loads, a Chinook doesn’t have to return to an airport to refill. It can suck up water from a river or lake and shuttle back and forth to a fire, dramatically multiplying the tonnage it drops per hour.
“Three thousand gallons is an amazing load of water dropping out of a tank,” Fennessy says. To put it in perspective, that much water fills a 7-foot cube, weighs 12 tons, and carries enough momentum to seriously injure a person on the ground.
Coulson’s Chinook had another potential advantage: It could fight fire at night. The company had spent a decade working out how pilots could safely fly these copters low to the ground in darkness using night vision goggles. It was time for a test. “The best time to fight fire is when the temperatures are down, the winds are down,” says Britt Coulson, who’s co-president and co-chief operating officer of the company with his brother, Foster. “At night you have no one else up in the air, and there’s much less smoke,” because the lower temperatures and higher humidity mean fires burn less intensely.
As evening set in on the 26th, the winds slackened in Santiago Canyon. Mel Ceccanti, Coulson’s director of rotorcraft flight operations, was in the Chinook’s pilot seat, ready for it to make its nighttime debut. First, a police copter with “forward-looking infrared” imaging equipment—night vision gear that can see through smoke better than goggles—took off to assess the situation. At about 9 p.m., police radioed that conditions were good.
Along with two Bells, the Chinook took off from the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, near Irvine, and headed for the blaze, which was approaching a housing development in Lake Forest. “I remember seeing the houses and then seeing the fire and thinking, ‘We’re not going to keep it out of these houses,’ ” Ceccanti says. “The winds were still very high, and the fire was still spreading fast. I looked at my co-pilot and told him, ‘There’s three days’ worth of work here. This is not going to be good.’ ”
Coming in over the flames, Ceccanti could feel the helicopter bouncing in turbulence. He held down the drop switch, and a curtain of water fell from the Chinook’s belly. Turning 180 degrees, he headed to a nearby pond to refill. Over the next two hours, he repeated the trip 21 times, returning to the airport when he was low on fuel before heading out again. An hour later, the fire attack coordinator radioed Ceccanti to say he was done. The development was safe.
The next day’s winds were light enough that the rest of the firefighting squadron—aircraft belonging to the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Orange County, and the Coulsons—could join crews on the ground. In the end, no homes were lost in the Silverado Fire.
The Los Angeles Times declared: The “Irvine fire was a recipe for disaster. It became a rare victory for firefighters in grim year.” The Chinook made the difference. “If it hadn’t been for that helicopter,” Fennessy says, “we’d have lost a number of these homes.”
Coulson Aviation has been busy since then. The 2020 fire season had barely sputtered out when the first wildfires started this year. In early May extreme drought conditions led the National Weather Service to declare a “red flag” wildfire warning across parts of Northern California.
Soon after, a 1,300-acre blaze erupted in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles. Coulson was on hand with a C-130 and a Boeing 737; within a week, the fire had been 84% contained, and no buildings were destroyed.
By late July, 257% more acreage had burned in California than in the same period last year, and Governor Gavin Newsom had declared a state of emergency in five northern counties. About 90 large blazes in 12 states have burned roughly 1.8 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, including the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, the largest in the U.S. this year, and the Dixie Fire, California’s biggest in 2021, which has burned an area larger than New York City.
Smoke from these fires and those in Canada has blanketed the continent in a haze, sending air quality alerts all the way to the East Coast.
Coulson is flying two C-130s, a 737, and five helicopters for the Forest Service as part of a national contract that’s included battling the Dixie Fire. Separately, it’s flying a “Quick Response Force” that includes two Chinooks and a Sikorsky S-61 in Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura counties.
On July 9, one of Coulson’s Chinooks, flying with the support of LA County aircraft, unloaded 80,000 gallons of water in 32 drops from 2:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. while fighting the Tuna Fire in Malibu. “If that fire had hit the ridge, she was going into $10 million homes,” says Wayne Coulson, Britt and Foster’s father and the company’s chief executive officer. “It was a good kill.”
In 1960, Cliff Coulson settled in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Back then, the family business was timber. Cliff had served on a tank crew with the Canadian Army in World War II and built on his experience working with armored vehicles and road-building equipment in Normandy.
He contracted with giant harvesters operating in the lush forests of British Columbia, providing the bulldozers, trucks, and other heavy machinery needed to cut down trees and haul them to sawmills. It was hard work and not that lucrative. When Cliff’s youngest son, Wayne, 17 years old at the time, joined the operation in 1978, it had about 15 employees.
Wildfires were on the company’s radar only because they could be financially ruinous. One day, Wayne was on a bulldozer pulling a log loader up a hill when the bulldozer threw a spark. Soon a blaze was raging. Wayne knew that a consortium of local timber companies had bought a pair of Martin JRM Mars seaplanes, giant aircraft built in the ’40s that could drop 7,000 gallons of water at a time.
“My dad always said, ‘Anytime you get a fire, phone the Mars,’ ” Wayne says. So he did. The family could’ve lost about $4 million worth of timber. Instead, it was out a few hundred thousand dollars. He’d never forget the power of sheer volume.
In 1982, Cliff had a stroke, and Wayne started running the company. He acquired sawmills, timber cutting rights, and, in 1987, an S-61 for extracting logs from remote mountainsides. By the ’90s, the company was one of the biggest family-owned forestry companies on British Columbia’s coast, with more than 1,000 employees.
The helicopter fleet grew to four. In the daylight-starved winters, they were rigged with “night sun” floodlights to illuminate the timber being extracted; in summer they were used to fight fires in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, hauling hundreds of gallons of water in buckets slung from long lines.
The contracts with state and federal agencies were a relatively stable source of income at a time when timber was not. In the early 2000s the U.S. imposed an import tariff that devastated Canadian producers. “We went from a thousand employees down to 500,” Wayne says. “We had to reinvent ourselves.”
Coulson invested in technology and bolstered its fleet. An early focus was how to better carry water: Buckets slung from long lines can become dangerous projectiles if released prematurely. In 2004 the company modified an S-61 to carry water in an internal tank.
This led to the development of Coulson’s retardant aerial delivery system, a tank apparatus for the C-130 that can drop as much as 4,000 gallons of water or retardant. It designed versions for the Chinook, as well as other copters and planes, and licensed the system to the U.S. Air Force.
relates to To Fight Wildfires, California Turns to a Family With a Fleet of $8,000-an-Hour Helicopters
In 2007, Coulson bought the Martin Mars planes. To guide them, the company acquired a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter to circle over fires and direct the fight. Coulson began converting C-130s and six 737s purchased from Southwest Airlines Co. as well as Chinook and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks in a partnership with Unical Group, an aviation parts and maintenance business.
Figuring out how to fight fire at night became a priority after the 2009 “Black Saturday” fires in Australia’s state of Victoria, which burned more than 1 million acres and killed over 150 people.
“They were sending the 61 ahead of the fire to see if they could see any people running or trapped, to pick them up, because there was a fire line being pushed along at 40 to 50 miles an hour,” Wayne says. The company thought it could’ve limited the damage had it not had to pause operations at night.
Operating in rough, unfamiliar terrain at low altitudes makes fighting fires tough enough; flying in the dark makes it that much harder. So pilots practiced using night vision goggles with accompanying helicopters designating drop points by laser. In 2016, after seven years of development, Coulson signed its first nighttime fire-suppression contract, with Victoria, limiting the arrangement to the smaller aircraft of its fleet.
Currently, more than 400 employees help operate three dozen aircraft on four continents. Since Australia’s fire season alternates with the Northern Hemisphere’s, business is year-round; the company also operates in Bolivia and Chile, and last year it won a contract in Indonesia.
Typically, contracts specify a fixed rate to keep an aircraft on standby for a certain number of days and then an hourly rate when the aircraft is dispatched. (Southern California Edison is paying $18 million for a 150-day contract with the Quick Response Force, and county fire authorities are being billed $8,000 an hour for the Chinooks and $6,000 for the S-61.)
To make sure equipment is in the right place, jets such as the 737 are flown internationally as needed. But short-range craft like the Chinook have to be put on cargo ships or tucked inside a massive Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavy transport, a plane six times the size of a 737.
The investments have been financially risky. “We spent tens of millions of dollars without contracts,” Wayne says. But the bets have paid off. Higher sustained temperatures driven by climate change have led to drier weather, more fires—and more work.
Coulson competes with mom and pop operations running a handful of crop-duster-sized planes, as well as big companies such as Erickson Inc., which operates 20 Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopters, and Columbia Helicopters Inc., whose fleet includes two dozen Chinooks. “There’s competitors that fly big helicopters, and there’s competitors that fly big airplanes,” Wayne says, “but there’s no single competitor that flies big airplanes and helicopters. We’re the only one.”
The Coulsons see California as a proving ground for how wildfires will be fought in the future. Their company’s first job in the state was in 2007, an historically bad wildfire season when officials needed the Martin Mars’s payload capability. In the years since, as the population has grown, homes have been built deeper into exurban areas, endangering more lives.
“You have this interface between flammable vegetation and people’s homes, and that means they’re inherently at pretty high risk,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment & Sustainability at the University of California at Los Angeles.
By the time the Silverado Fire broke out, the state was already reeling from a season that included five of the six most devastating blazes in its history, including the North Complex fire, which killed 16 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
Cumulatively, wildfires killed 33 people in California last year, and the danger lingers. About 5,300 people live within 5 miles of the Dixie Fire, according to a New York Times wildfire tracker. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that as of Aug. 2 the blaze was about 30% contained.
To fight back, state authorities have adopted ideas from modern military planners. The emphasis is on gathering data, processing it quickly, and using it to direct resources. Coulson’s Chinook had help during the Silverado Fire: Southern California’s landscape is dotted with hundreds of sensors to monitor temperature and humidity, plus cameras mounted on hilltops as well as satellites to keep watch.
The information is fed into a supercomputer at the University of California at San Diego that models risk. Once a blaze is detected, a Beechcraft Super King Air turboprop—manned by a pilot, an “air attack” supervisor, and a mission operator—provides more surveillance using a camera in its nose. That data updates the modeling and alerts firefighters to problem areas that could emerge in two, four, and six hours.
Coulson’s latest project is modifying four Cessna Citation jets that will get to a fire faster than the King Airs and have more advanced data-synthesizing capabilities. “It’s bringing in a military-type platform into this civilian world,” Britt says. The company is working with UCSD to feed data about the drops into the supercomputer models so they update in real time.
“Say you’ve got a prediction that the fire is going to come over the hill and burn 200 homes,” Wayne says. “Now we’ve got a CH-47 dropping 2,800 gallons on the head of the fire. We map the fire 30 minutes later and can see, ‘Hey, we’ve knocked the head out.’ Instead of being reactive, we can be proactive.”
The company is also developing a system that will allow intelligence-gathering aircraft to send data about optimal drop points directly to inbound tankers, whose bellies will automatically open and close based on the information. The technology will calculate how many drops will be needed at the outset of a mission, eliminating the need for guesswork. “It’s more of a surgical strike,” Wayne says.
To a layperson, the Coulsons might sound like they’re reading aloud from a Tom Clancy novel. But there’s a reason for that. Fighting wildfires is like fighting a war. Battles never end: Rain brings growth that will become fuel, droughts make the fuel drier and prone to combust, and every place that burns will burn again.
A month after the Silverado Fire, Santa Ana winds whipped another conflagration over the hillsides near its burn scar, destroying 31 structures and forcing 25,000 residents to evacuate. Orange County called in Coulson’s Chinook, and it dropped more than 90,000 gallons of water in one night.
And as in battle, there are casualties. Last year one of Coulson’s C-130s was dispatched to a fire south of Canberra, Australia, along with a 737. The 737 descended into the fire first, hitting fierce winds. After dropping its retardant, the crew sent a message to the intelligence aircraft on the scene that conditions were “horrible down there. Don’t send anybody, and we’re not going back.” Heeding that advice, the C-130 flew to a fire 36 miles to the east that was threatening a koala reserve. But conditions there were little better.
The plane dropped retardant along the foot of a hill from an altitude of 190 feet. As it finished, it entered a thick cloud of smoke. The pilot apparently became disoriented, and the plane crashed. All three men aboard were killed instantly. Wayne, Britt, and Foster took a helicopter to the crash site as soon as they could. “Everything was burning around us,” Wayne says.
As he sees it, opportunity lies not only in the scope of the catastrophes ahead, but also in their unpredictability. With the world experiencing unprecedented droughts and temperatures, the nature of wildfire control is changing in ways not yet fully understood.
Dumping more water and retardant is part of the solution, but so is making sure it’s landing in the right place. “There’s an old saying in business: You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Wayne says. “We need to build models for fighting wildfire, because it’s changing all the time. And if we don’t change with it, it’s going to kick our ass.”
A Wildfire-Predicting Startup Tries To Help Insurers Cope With Climate Change
Climate change is making California’s fire seasons more severe, but the conditions that lead to any single fire remain consistent: dry weather, overgrown brush, wind speed, and wind direction. Private companies and public agencies are racing to develop technology to monitor these conditions, in the hopes of understanding how wildfires spread—and predicting them before they happen.
As a bigger proportion of the country’s most populous state burns, the stakes of getting those predictions right goes up, too. Six of the seven largest fires in California’s history have occurred since August of last year, and extreme drought throughout the American West has experts concerned that this year’s season is shaping up to be particularly bad. Human lives are on the line. So are billions of dollars.
There’s demand for wildfire forecasting from both the public sector and commercial interests. As of now much of the innovation is coming from technology companies looking to serve insurers grappling with increasingly costly and erratic blazes—a trend that could determine not only how predictive software is used but how it’s designed.
These dynamics are on display with Kettle, a startup that’s created a predictive system by using artificial intelligence to help it design reinsurance policies that protect insurance companies against wildfire risk. Andrew Engler, who has spent years in the insurance industry, first as a sales lead at Allstate and then a vice president at Argo Group, and Nathaniel Manning, former chief executive officer of the humanitarian communication crowdsourcing app Ushahidi, founded Kettle in 2020.
Reinsurers have traditionally used a technique called stochastic modeling, which analyzes historical data to determine the likelihood of random events. That doesn’t work when the changing climate system behaves in ways that humans have not yet seen, Engler says.
“If the way you price risk is you go, ‘OK, how many times has a wildfire hit Los Angeles in the past 500 years? Well, it’s happened twice, so we’ll peg all of our pricing this year at a 1-in-250 chance that Los Angeles will burn,’ you’re going to be wildly wrong, because the next 15 years are going to look nothing like the past 500,” he says. “So understanding that, there’s a major opportunity here.”
Kettle is looking to analyze enormous amounts of geospatial imagery to find emerging patterns. It pulls in data from satellites and weather data maps to predict the areas in California most at risk for wildfire.
Many insurers have responded to a trend of record-breaking fire seasons by raising rates or refusing to cover some areas. The problem has gotten bad enough that California’s insurance commissioner has issued moratoriums on canceling or refusing to renew insurance in some ZIP codes hit by a fire emergency for one year after the area burns.
Engler’s thesis is that many areas that insurers avoid are safer than they seem. Last year, the third-worst year in California’s fire history, almost 11,500 properties were destroyed, and 4.5 million acres burned. Although devastating, he says, that was only a fraction of the 14 million homes in the state, and 4% of the land. “When we see the response from an industry being, ‘The state’s uninsurable,’ that’s completely incorrect,” he says.
The predictive tech is tied to a novel business model for reinsurance. Typically, insurers work with multiple reinsurance companies to cover their entire portfolio. Kettle models the risk of an insurer’s entire portfolio, then offers to sell fire-specific policies that cover a fraction of those homes in the areas where Kettle’s model has the most certainty about burn patterns. It says 26 carriers have asked it to model their risk.
The company recently used historical data to see how well its model would have performed during the 2020 fire season. It examined the 14 largest wildfires in California that year and found that 11 of them occurred in areas Kettle’s software labeled as top 10% most likely areas to experience wildfire in 2020; all 14 fires were in the top 20%.
Kettle has attracted outside investors into its underwriting programs, but it also plans to put up its own money when it begins writing policies next year. The company argues that holding some risk aligns it with its clients’ interests better than if it sold only software subscriptions.
There’s a big difference between knowing which areas are likely to burn and which actually will burn over any discrete time period, says Andre Coleman, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Even the most fire-prone areas need a spark, and no software is good enough to anticipate which stretch of highway will get the fateful cigarette thrown out a car window, or the location and timing of the overly exuberant gender reveal party. “If you take the fire risk data as it’s published by others, and you overlay where fires are actually happening, there’s not a really strong correlation,” Coleman says.
Coleman agrees with Engler that climate change is complicating conventional predictive techniques. Fires are regularly forging new paths. The Dixie Fire, an active blaze that’s already the second-largest in California’s history, became the first to traverse the Sierra Nevada from the foothills to the eastern valley. Coleman’s team is developing tools to increase situational awareness for people on the ground in the thick of a blaze.
The company’s models account for long-term uncertainty by simulating millions of theoretical scenarios. “You can’t predict every single gust of wind—every single, you know, plant leaf and what moisture density it is,” Engler says. But there are “emergent patterns that we see in these larger conflagrations with everything going wrong that you can start to hone into, and those are the areas that we’re going to find to be most dangerous over time.”
Other entities with interests in California’s wildfires have their own spins on predictive technology. State Farm Insurance, MetLife Inc., and other insurance companies use software from startups such as Cape Analytics LLC and Zesty.AI that also use AI and decades of satellite imagery to understand microlevel risk factors.
This level of detail could allow them to examine features of individual homes—like scruffy vegetation in the combustible zone within 10 feet of a house—and price policies more in line with their risk. The U.S. Forest Service is incorporating AI models into its wildfire-fighting strategy, piloting RADR-Fire, a product that uses infrared technology and satellite imagery to help firefighters track fires through smoke and haze.
Having the kind of sophisticated rendering of risk that Kettle is developing could also help firefighters and local officials create shorter-term evacuation plans, determine where to build fire breaks, and better allocate resources. Engler and Manning say they envision sharing their findings with utility companies, firefighters, and the Forest Service.
But for now they’re solely focused on insurers, a decision that influences the shape of their product. For instance, Kettle uses its new predictions only twice a year because that’s how often reinsurers sell new policies, even though it gathers new data constantly.
An insurance company’s definition of risk—and therefore the inputs and methodology of its predictions—can also differ from that of public actors, says Sean Triplett, a tools and technology team lead for the Forest Service.
Kettle’s confidence intervals are based on what monetary risk they’re comfortable taking on, whereas the Forest Service is “worried about the whole ecosystem,” he says. “We’re worried about the whole community, we’re worried about the other values at risk—the power lines, the water quality, everything that goes into that.”
Others argue that the priority should be discouraging risky development, not finding ways to reclassify areas so insurers will cover them. “We need stricter constraints for building permits and [for] developers to respect them,” writes Dominique Bachelet, an associate professor at Oregon State University, in an email.
Manning says he’s not against disincentivizing development in fire-prone areas but says that the broad-swath hesitance of insurers is also harmful. He doesn’t accept the implication that insurance is somehow a less worthy application than emergency response.
“This insurance solution is just beautiful, but it has such a bad rap,” he says. After a disaster there’s grave suffering and international attention, he argues, but the adversity continues after the acute crisis wanes. “After everyone leaves—the news, and the first responders—it’s basically this long tail of just the local community and the insurance companies, for years.”
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