While Wildfire Technology Grows in Australia, U.S. Funding for Fighting Fires Dwindles During Corona
This year started with a burning Australia and then a worldwide pandemic. As Australia recovers from its scorched landscape with new fire response technology, the U.S. enters into a hot summer season of high fire risk—with little wildfire funding after COVID-19.
- By Amanda Smiley
- Jun 09, 2020
The seasons are flipped on either side of the world, but both Australia and the U.S. are tackling the same demons: wildfires, the coronavirus, and the impacts those have on the environment.
In the beginning of this year, the world watched in horror as six percent of New South Whales in Australia—or 13.6 million acres—burned in flames from the largest wildfire in the country’s history. As the world’s attention shifted to later reports about a novel coronavirus and countries began to react appropriately, Australia was left to recover.
The Complications of Fire
One New York Times article delves into Australia’s ongoing projects to address future fires with the research, installment and funding of new wildfire technology. Scientists and officials are working together to develop fire-prediction technology that will help firefighters work faster and more safely when the next fire season—expected and likely just as aggressive—begins.
This new wildfire technology will not be helpful to just Australia—it would help many other places and officials around the world. This is important because predicting and reacting to wildfires is a complicated science that greatly relies on the resources and manpower a fire program has.
For example, “whether you hold resources back in reserve in case more fires break out, or whether you hit that fire very hard, can mean the difference between a fire that’s put out in 15 minutes and one that goes for weeks,” said Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of Fire and Rescue New South Wales. To make that decision correctly, firefighters first must know which areas are high-risk.
With Australia fires in particular, eucalyptus trees complicate matters since they are “particularly fire-intensive; their dry, shedding bark catches easily, and the embers can be blown ahead of a blaze, lighting others.” This is known as “spotting,” and it is one of the most challenging problems in predicting a fire’s behavior.
Fire’s behavior is hard to predict and very powerful. One Atlantic article explains how fires in California in particular are essentially outrunning humans. It lists complications of firefighting like wind patterns, “white-hot” air swaths that heat an area before flames get there and issues of underbrush in forest areas.
Australia’s Fire Technology
Australia has been developing a couple different technologies to better help firefighting forces. One computer program called Phoenix RapidFire models the “spotting” phenomenon by simulating flames that can cover an area. It is used to predict fire behavior. A similar program, FarSite, is commonly used in the U.S.
In Australia, when a wildfire starts, analysts (sometimes far from the fire location) enter variables into Phoenix, such as the fire’s location, time it started and the terrain. Closer to the fire, regional teams feed information back to headquarters where the fire management team and analysts help decide where to send resources like firefighters, trucks and water-bombing helicopters.
Another computer software system called Spark aims to improve upon Pheonix and be even more intuitive and reliable. Plus, firefighters often use drones and drone technology to get aerial data on fires. There are even teams that have developed Fire Regime Operations Simulation Tool, or FROST—aimed at studying the nature and behavior of vegetation that has been burned, and how that vegetation will affect future fires. Major trials for these are expected to begin this year.
However, fire experts say that tools like Phoenix are really just that: tools. Manual analysts still tend to produce more accurate results than models.
Corona Takes Over U.S. Fire Efforts
While firefighting technology ramps up on one part of the world, firefighting efforts take a hard hit on the other. Another New York Times article describes how the pandemic has largely monopolized U.S. firefighting efforts through staff, resources and funding.
About a month ago, nearly 10 percent of the San Jose city firefighter department—which is largely responsible for fighting the state’s wildfires—were either infected from COVID-19 or in quarantine. Firefighters across the U.S. (in places like Georgia, Indiana and Washington) are also either sick or in quarantine.
With the start of summer and the dry season, the U.S. is sure to be in for another season of wildfires. The article explains: “Arizona and New Mexico have had rain, but parts of California have already seen an increase in reported fires, according to The California Department of Fire. The state has received roughly half the amount of snow and rainfall that is normal for this time of year.”
Fire departments across the nation are having to simultaneously rethink their own operations to account for coronavirus, but also help with coronavirus efforts in their communities—all while beginning to respond to the onset of wildfire season. Departments have had to rethink their operations to ensure social distancing and infection reduction, but that raises questions about staffing and funding needs.
Plus, since many firefighters have been helping with community coronavirus efforts, their departments have not been able to allocate time to train them for other needs, like wildfires control.
Washington State’s Department of National Resources canceled the first of three fire academies that the agency holds to train some 1,500 firefighters a year. Instead, firefighters would train in smaller groups at local units. Daniel Hottle, a press officer for the United States Forest Service out of the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, said in a statement that the northern region has seen a handful of meetings postponed or rescheduled because of coronavirus concerns.
All of these details raise concerns about how to implement training during a pandemic and the lack of preparation for a pandemic in the first place for fire departments—all in the midst of a looming probability of aggressive fires across the country this coming season.
Fire technologies continue to grow, and efforts to combat the coronavirus around the world have complicated funding and manpower to address wildfires. But understanding intersectionality between issues is crucial to understanding how to tackle them. Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner, notes how important the discussion of climate change is in all of this:
“Advancements in technology are important…big ticket item is tackling climate change…It’s a bit like going to a gas fire and putting out all the houses and burning cars around it but not turning off the gas. Well, it’ll keep burning. All the houses, everything: doesn’t matter how much water you put on them, they’ll keep catching fire again.”