Wildfires Are on the Rise and Technology Can’t Stop Them
We’re getting better at tracking and predicting fires. But when it comes to the biggest, deadliest blazes, there isn’t much to do but evacuate.
Darin Minnabarriet at his house on the Ashcroft First Nation as a distant fire burns near Ashcroft, B.C. on July 9. Image: THE Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck
Wildfires are raging in British Columbia on the west coast of Canada, causing over 40,000 people to evacuate their homes. With the hotter, drier conditions brought on by climate change, fires are expected to get bigger and more intense in years to come.
Surely there must be something we can do to fight these out-of-control fires—some kind of technological fix. Maybe send in a remote-controlled, firefighting mini-tank?
Canada has made progress in technology that tracks and prevents wildfires, Tim Lynham, Forest Fire Research Project Leader with Natural Resources Canada, told me. A suborbital drone is under development that would help firefighters track blazes, he said, and they're refining a danger rating system that helps identify fires' potential to rage out of control.
Even so, our frontline firefighting tools haven't changed very much in years because, when it comes to battling the biggest, most dangerous blazes, there's nowhere else to go. Experts told me that, in this sense, our firefighting tech has reached a ceiling.
University of Alberta professor Mike Flannigan co-authored a recent study highlighting how climate change will impact fires in the future. While Canada's firefighters are able to manage nearly all the fires in their provinces, he said, just 3 percent of fires are responsible for 97 percent of area burned. These powerfully destructive blazes are a real challenge.
"If there's anything in the path of that fire, there's bloody little you can do"
All fires are roughly the same temperature, Flannigan told Motherboard. But the amount of energy they release can vary—what firefighters call their "intensity." The more intense a fire gets, the more dangerous it becomes.
If a wildfire has an intensity of under 2,000 kilowatts per metre, firefighters can fight it on the ground with pumps and handtools, according to Flannigan. Between intensities of 2,000 and 4,000 kilowatts per metre, water bombers are effective. But anything over that—wildfires can get up to 100,000 kilowatts per metre—there's not much anybody can do but evacuate.
"If there's anything in the path of that fire, there's bloody little you can do. You can spend millions of dollars, but you're spitting on a campfire," Flannigan said.
According to Lynham, we should be expecting more evacuations in the future.
"Last year, it was 90,000 [people] in Fort McMurray. This year it's 40,000 in British Columbia," he said, referring to the wildfire that burned the Alberta oiltown in 2016. "These are quite phenomenal numbers for evacuations and we're going to be facing this on a more regular basis," Lynham said.
According to him, Canada's suborbital drone, which could be realized in the next 10 years, would position itself 100,000 feet up, above areas where there isn't any cell service (apparently an issue when fighting a fire out in the boreal forest), and act as a mobile cell tower to allow firefighters to communicate and track the blaze.
The country has also updated its Forest Fire Danger Rating System, which analyses a wildfire and determines its potential to become high-intensity—based on the amount of dry wood, which is fuel, and wind—and shut it down if possible, or make speedy evacuation plans.
Although the drone and the tracking system will help track and prevent fires, they can't quench these massive blazes once they've begun. "It's not a suppression tool," Lynham said. "It's a way of dealing with something that we can't stop."
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