Can we use new technologies to predict, detect and fight wildfires?

A man watches a wildfire in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

Climate change has brought greater and more frequent weather extremes in recent years. which has led to intense storms, flash floods, droughts, and ravaging wildfires. Wildfires in particular have become a global phenomenon, breaking out more frequently and with more ferocity in countries across the world – and it’s likely that the number and intensity of these wildfires will continue to increase due to climate change.

A recent study from Nesta Challenges, which designs challenge prizes that help solve pressing societal problems that currently lack solutions, found that environmental challenges are one of the most important societal issues that the UK faces today, with climate change seen as a national concern.

The study canvassed 2,200 Brits, including young teenagers right through to the elderly, to determine their views on society today. Interestingly, under 16s and those aged 65+ are the most likely to consider environmental challenges as the most important issue we currently face (67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively).

When forests and other natural environments which actively store carbon are burned, they release huge amounts of CO2 in a very short time. Wildfires have a significant and immediate impact on human health by lowering air quality and will have longer term impacts on mental health if natural calming spaces become rarer and more difficult to access. Wildfires leave devastation in their wake; destroying wildlife habitats and leaving behind long-lasting changes on the ground.

There are also huge costs associated with the combat and clean-up of wildfires. In the US, $3.5bn was spent on fighting wildfires in California alone in 2018, and over the last decade, fire suppression costs in Canada have ranged from about $500m to $1bn a year. Current fire management techniques are expensive and put human resources at risk: Nesta Challenges believes tech and innovation can play a vital role in bringing new solutions to decelerate climate change and mitigate its impacts, support the preservation of biodiversity and environments, while safeguarding human health. In fact, 60 per cent of people questioned for the Nesta Challenges study said that new and emerging technologies have the potential to be used for social good.


There are a number of new technological solutions emerging using artificial intelligence, data management, robotics and high-resolution mapping software that can help to prevent wildfires. An example of such technology is WIFIRE from the University of California San Diego, which was designed to predict a wildfire’s path in real time. Currently used by a handful of California fire departments, it is being tested in more than 100 other jurisdictions.

However, at present these existing solutions are mainly limited to tools that help firefighters combat wildfires on the ground. In order to leverage technological innovation we must be visionary, imagining new frontiers which though implausible today, help unlock creativity and progress. Cast your mind into the future and imagine a world where human beings no longer risk their lives to fight dangerous fires. Instead swarms of fire suppression drones fill the sky, sensing and adapting automatically to subtle shifts in the wind, able within mere seconds to detect the direction a fire is spreading or even use AI to predict where the fire will move, and contain it.

Another future might hold roving lighting rods, which roam through lightening hot spots serving to attract and neutralise lightning bolts, perhaps even storing the charge and translating it to a source of clean energy.

Imagine forest surveillance bots that have the technology to scan forest conditions (the undergrowth, debris, and overall dryness) to detect high-probability outbreak areas and then deploy teams of service bots to remediate the area, thus neutralising the threat of a fire.

The thought experiment could go on, and although most ideas won’t be feasible, the work of innovators is to spot those unique opportunities where something visionary can transform into reality. What we know is that the pace of innovation can be accelerated and fostered effectively. Challenge Prizes attract innovators and enhance their solutions by creating incentives, such as the opportunity to receive cash prizes, engage in accelerator programs, and gain unprecedented access to a network of key experts and organisations. Nesta Challenges is a leader in Challenge Prize methodology and works cross-sectorally, having developed and run Challenge Prizes across a myriad of areas from environment & energy, to financial and health sectors, to wellbeing and young people.

Climate change is a pressing issue of our time, and Nesta Challenges is looking at ways we can leverage Challenge Prizes to unearth game-changing solutions in the fight against climate change. We’re starting this process with an investigation into wildfires, to learn about the key issues, and importantly, the key gaps where technology and innovation are needed. If you are interested in contributing to or learning about this research, please contact us.

Liz Vossen is programme manager at Nesta Challenges at the innovation charity Nesta.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.