2022 has been the summer of forest fires. Can IoT help save the day?

Reading time: 5 minutes

What you will learn after reading this:

  • Why 99% of forest fires are caused by humans 
  • In what way the 1990s were a worse time for forest fires than today 
  • Why are forest fires happening more often 
  • How NB-IoT and lidar technology could save forests near you from devastation via fire 

As you read this, the McKinney fire is burning. As of 1st August, this forest fire in Northern California has grown to more than 52,000 acres and stretches over 39,000 feet high. Unfortunately, this massive fire isn’t an anomaly: it’s one of more than 50 forest fires that have burned across North America this year.

Europe has witnessed similar devastation via fire: in June 2022, two massive forest fires burned in the Gironde region of France — despite sending over 1,200 firefighters, authorities were unable to contain the fires. In Portugal 98,000 acres of land was consumed by wildfires between January and mid-June, over triple the area in the same period last year, reports the Guardian. 

It’s a problem that feels increasingly urgent, especially in the summer months. Given this, we turned to two experts for some answers. Is this issue really increasing year by year or does it simply have more media attention paid to it? And if it’s as bad as it seems (or worse), what can we do to ameliorate matters?

We spoke to Mirosław Kwiatkowski, a project manager at the Polish Forest Research Institute and Konrad Zuchniak, the co-founder of the IoT fire detection startup FireFinder, who participated in hubraum’s 2021 IoT residency program (and who we previously interviewed here).  

Kwiatkowski has worked in forest conservation for over 35 years. He argues something that may seem surprising: apparently, 99% of forest fires are caused by humans and a third of these fires aren’t an accident, but are started on purpose. Konrad seconds this theory but qualifies it: he argues it depends on the geographic region, but in populated areas people are mainly the cause “most often because of stupidity and recklessness, but deliberate arson is still popular”, and is often deployed for economic gain.

“Arson was an issue on the outskirts of Athens even before the crisis. Developers needed land so badly that they paid arsonists to ‘prepare’ the site for investment.” What about fire caused in rural areas? The main cause is weather conditions like lightning, says Zuchniak, while Mirosław talks of natural fires caused by atmospheric pressure discharge.

While the forest fires of the summer of this year feel notably awful, Mirosław remembers fires from the nineties “when a couple thousand hectares of forest would be set alight by just one fire.” He argues that back then “the problem was far more serious as the forest fire protection systems were definitely not as organized as today.” The connectivity was bad, he says, plus there wasn’t much anti-fire equipment available. “Over the years, that has changed and improved a lot. I’m sure it’s worth investing time and energy in this issue when I see the results of my work.”

This said, he believes there has been a “substantial growth” in the number of fires that take place each year. If the area is dry and in addition to this, there are severe weather conditions (like extreme temperatures), there will be fires similar to those from the nineties or 2020, when 5500 hectares of grass and forest were burned.

He argues the growing consciousness about the climate emergency may have contributed to increased reporting on the topic (giving the sense it happens more often), however “all the information about such incidents spread really quickly, which I find a good thing as it may shape more appropriate reactions when it comes to forest fires.”

Human prevention can only go so far — as the Gironde incident mentioned in our introduction suggests, these fires are growing so big that even thousands of firefighters can struggle to end a contemporary forest fire. Is there anything technology can do to improve the situation? Zuchniak “found that it is relatively easy to build a device that will be able to detect smoke”. He continues: “Modern IoT technologies, such as, above all, NB-IoT allow for the real-time transmission of measurements straight from the forest.”

The upshot of his work is FireFinder, a dense network of IoT detectors which detect fire at an early stage. He argues that the idea of tracking and alerting people about forest fires is nothing new — after all, primitive early fire warning systems already existed in ancient Rome, although mainly in the military. “We basically added ‘via IoT’ to this concept. Our sensors literally smell smoke: they work like a mesh, the entire forest is covered with a sensor mesh. If any of the sensors detects even a trace concentration of smoke, it will immediately alert the relevant departments, thanks to which extinguishing the fire can be started extremely quickly.”

FireFinder is in constant contact with foresters, which means they “listen to the needs and comments of real system users and adapt our solutions — it’s never the other way around.” Currently, they are finishing developing their prototype. “But we work together with the Polish Forest Research Institute, one of the largest units of this type in Europe, and we’re improving our device together with them.”

Besides detection technologies like these, Kwiatkowski notes that there are also advanced solutions based on lidar technology, where thanks to the analysis of laser reflection or laser scattering you can pinpoint the level of pollution (including smoke) which allows you to detect fires in huge areas. “It is also possible to detect smoke under tree crowns thanks to the precise monitoring of the amount of specific chemical compounds in the air, however this requires a huge number of sensors and it can be deployed only in crucial or extremely endangered areas.”

Is there anything that we, as individuals, can do? Zuchniak pauses for a moment and thinks. The only measure ordinary people can take, he says, is in their political decisions and by supporting governments who are more focused on looking after the next generation and less about their next term in office.

“In general, counteracting climate change and global warming will also prevent forest fires.” When it comes to foresters and specialists, they know what to do and they do it, he says. “From my personal experience, I know that these are people who love forests, have extensive knowledge about them and take extensive measures to protect them.”

This month we’ll be taking a solutions-first look at how technology can help us fight the climate emergency and give us hope for a better future — sounds good? Sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss an update. 

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