We need to use modern technologies to prevent wildfires

Olivia Staser/Staff

Uncontrolled, large-scale fires are growing in number and will increasingly affect more communities beyond the immediate fire zone. These fires will continue to threaten countries around the globe and drain their resources until effective fire-management protocols are in place. With California at the center of this problem, we must look into technologies that will control and prevent wildfires.

Fire-management strategies fall into two categories. The first component focuses on long-term management of wildfires through proper forestry, controlled burns and well-planned infrastructure. The second component concentrates on immediate actions needed in times of emergency in both wildland and urban environments. The second component is the primary focus of the Fire Research Group, or FRG, which has been recently formed in the UC Berkeley College of Engineering and is composed of engineers, scientists and first-responders.

As of 2018, only a modest level of modern technologies have been used in fire management, but to date, these approaches have primarily addressed smaller fires and are not advanced enough to deal with the large, sprawling, emergency “mega-fires” of recent years. Standard sensors, cameras and telecommunications systems typically fail in harsh, large-scale, fire-driven environments. Furthermore, the costs of high-end equipment such as specialized unmanned aerial vehicles, fire-resistant cameras and sensors, and infrastructure retrofits have been prohibitive. Additionally, the development of rapidly deployable and easy-to-use emergency systems across different telecommunications platforms is lacking.

In order to respond to these problems, the FRG aims to develop robust and cost-effective firefighting systems that are easy to maintain, upgrade and use by incorporating state-of-the-art technologies. The FRG’s long-term vision is the widespread utilization of tools that can be inexpensively mass-produced, customized for rapid operation, and deployed in tandem with mobile high-performance computing and data science for real-time control by first responders.

With these goals in mind, the FRG will utilize advanced manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing to embed sensors into devices and to reduce costs through mass production. This will produce inexpensive next-generation firefighting tools for harsh environments. These tools include more durable thermographic cameras, multimodal unmanned aerial vehicles, gas detectors, sensor-based sprinkler systems and nontoxic, robust, fire-retardant, noncombustible building materials.

Widespread adoption of these technologies will ultimately reduce firefighting costs and increase societal resilience in effectively responding to emergency fires. The societal costs of fires are high. A significant percentage of cost increases for wildfire maintenance can be traced to overly expensive and outdated technologies of questionable value to first responders.

Estimates indicate that fire departments in the United States responded to 1,319,500 fires in 2017. These fires caused 3,400 civilian fatalities, 14,670 civilian fire injuries and approximately $23 billion in property losses. This includes losses of $10 billion in Northern California wildfires.

Every minute delayed in primary response for certain life-threatening medical emergencies leads to a measurable effect on mortality, especially in the first five minutes in the response interval — when rapid intervention makes the greatest difference. It is estimated that every 2 hours, 34 minutes, a civilian death occurs, and every 36 minutes, a civilian fire injury. Fires in the home caused 77 percent of the civilian fire deaths — 2,630 in total.

As a modern society, we need to develop, harness and integrate the state-of-the-art technologies across many fields in order to produce robust and affordable firefighting systems that are easy to maintain, upgrade and deploy for early detection and control of fires. There is no single research area or group that can tackle this problem alone, which is why the FRG brought together engineers, scientists, technologists, first responders and firefighters to bolster research in fire science, management and control — particularly in times of emergency.

It is critical that students, staff and faculty across campus departments work together to find solutions to deal with fires in a technologically astute way. By combining their fields of interest and studies, they can create more comprehensive solutions. Widespread adoption of these technologies will ultimately reduce firefighting costs and make our society more resilient.

We have now entered a stage in humanity when proactive fire management has become essential to well-functioning societies. Fire management is a complex ecosystem involving nature, technology, finances and most importantly, human lives. In the past, many engineers, scientists and technologists have considered fire research unimportant. But in light of recent, needlessly tragic, horrific events, controlling wildfires has now become everyone’s problem, and with a persistently drier climate, the chances for fire-related catastrophes will increase.
As most of us experienced in the Bay Area last year, smoke inhalation from wildfires directly affects our community. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of people die prematurely from wildfire smoke inhalation each year. The wildland-urban interface is not going to get smaller in the foreseeable future. Populations will continue to grow, and people will keep building into these areas. Thus, we need to develop an interdisciplinary approach between academia and end users in order to build a more fire-resilient society. Together, the UC Berkeley community can develop innovative solutions that rise to meet this pressing societal challenge that acutely impacts us all.

Tarek Zohdi is a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and director of the Fire Research Group.