Tech and Science

3 new solutions for old problems when it comes to fighting wildfires

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As Canada continues to deal with a difficult wildfire season, new technologies and techniques could help battle and prevent the blazes.

As of July 16, there were 880 active fires burning across the country which have burned about 10 million hectares of land — just under the surface area of Newfoundland not including Labrador.

The wildfires have been burning since late April in parts of Canada surprising officials, who say this year is likely to be the worst wildfire season to date.

Thousands of crews, many of which are made up of volunteer firefighters, have attempted to push back the fires but the dry landscape creates difficult working conditions.

The fires are not only burning through important ecosystems but are also forcing many people from their homes and impacting the health of Canadians coast to coast.

Despite the challenging season, there are some new technologies aiding fire crews around the world and in Canada, like better fire suppression that does not harm nature and artificial intelligence-powered cameras helping with early detection of fires.

Canadians can also participate in preventing wildfires with some techniques in farming.

ECO-FRIENDLY FIRE SUPPRESSION

One new technology is eco-gel from FireRein, an Ontario-based company focusing on making firefighting products safer for humans and the environment.

Fire crews use a mixture of water and fire suppression chemicals like foam when battling blazes. These foams often have harmful polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals” which do not break down in the environment or in human bodies.

“The foam of the future isn’t really a foam, it’s a gel,” Quincy Emmons, a co-founder of FireRein told CTVNews.ca in an interview.

The eco-gel is made of plant-based ingredients like cornstarch and canola oil, and when mixed with the correct ratio of water can be sprayed out of a hose coating with a consistency similar to hair gel.

“If you’ve had a salad and salad dressing, you’ve had most of our ingredients,” Emmons said.

The company has been licensed and certified by the U.S. Department of Agricultural Bio Preferred Program and the Underwriters Laboratories, a not-for-profit safety testing and certification organization.

Emmons told CTVNews.ca it is the “only product in the world” like it.

The gel comes in a liquid concentrate that can be added to many firetrucks in place of foam, an upgrade would cost around $15,000 to $20,000.

The gel is “sticky” and can grip on and stay in place.

Leaves coated in eco-gel. (FireRein)

“Think of ketchup being squeezed, the ketchup wants to move and then you stop squeezing it, then it’ll stay in place within a few seconds,” Emmons said.

It can also be applied to structures, vegetation and valuable infrastructure as a fire-prevention barrier.

It gives firefighters the capacity to push the gel and fire away from something. One issue with existing foam, Emmons said, is it can run off, contaminating drinking water.

“If they want to push the contaminant away from a storm drain or a stream you have more control,” he said.

The product still needs to be used in large capacities to fight wildfires but is being trialled or used by 15 departments across Canada, the majority being in Ontario.

Emmons said the product can be dropped out of existing planes aiding the fight against large wildfires.

“This exponentially improves a country’s fire management system, just because you’re using existing planes,” he said.

Emmons says once the fire is extinguished —and depending on weather conditions — the product breaks down over a few days.

“That’s the beauty about our product, it is a gel, (but) it’s unlike other gels as it isn’t based on super absorbent polymers,” he said. “As you start to get more water in there it just starts to break up at a certain point.”

When asked if the product could harm delicate ecosystems, Emmons said a study with the University of Guelph “didn’t kill anything.”

REGENERATIVE SOIL TECHNIQUES

Prevention methods to deter fire from reaching communities is a key strategy officials use during the wildfire season and can be aided further by farmers.

Regeneration Canada, a grassroots organization based in Montreal, is pushing the idea of how crops can deter the spread of a wildfire.

“Our mission is to promote and to implement regenerative practices on farms but also close this loop by integrating more stakeholders,” Antonious Petro, executive director of Regeneration Canada, told CTVNews.ca in an interview.

Regenerative farming is the treatment of the soil, incorporating ecosystems around the farm and promoting a food chain that does not place a burden on nature. The simplest form of regenerative farming is taking care of the soil, which in turn keeps it moist, Petro said.

“A very dry, poor crop in grassland is like hay, but if you have a green and living perennial root and above-ground crops, I think it’s very safe to say that there is a huge effect of slowing down the fire just because of how it’s humid and there’s lots of water in the ecosystem.”

To achieve moist soil, Petro says farmers need to focus on retaining roots and crop health year-round. One way to do this is by ensuring multiple species of plants can live together on the same plot of land.

Farmer Drew Spoelstra inspects his soy crop on his farm in Hamilton, Ont., Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

“When you have a crop that is ready to be harvested there’s another crop that’s just coming out of the ground that holds this moisture together so that it never (dries),” Perto said.

Other solutions include not plowing and careful planting of seeds. If there are physical disturbances to the soil, such as by rotating the underground microorganisms to the top into direct sunlight, the soil is not able to retain water.

In the fall and winter, many crops are given a break before the next year’s planting season. Petro says adding “green manure” to the soil will help its regeneration.

“Green manure is plants that bring nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil,” he said. “We have snow because the life in the soil still nourishes during our winter because the snow acts as an insulator.”

Adding nutrients just prior to snowfall will keep the microorganisms alive throughout the harsh winters.

Crop rotation, which is the practice of planting different seeds on a plot of land each year, will increase the biodiversity of the soil.

“We always talk about the diversity in our food system and how we eat as humans, it’s the same thing for soil,” Petro said.

If the soil is exposed to different animals like poultry, livestock and wild animals it enhances biodiversity.

Healthy soil by itself is not going to stop wildfire, but Petro says farms could play a role in slowing the spread to communities.

“It’s important to say that it’s not the solution, it’s a myriad of other things,” he said. “(But) I think we can have this shield.”

AI FIRE DETECTION

Before fighting a wildfire, officials need to be aware of where it has started.

The remote Canadian landscape creates difficulty not only in battling wildfires but also in detecting them. Often a fire can grow to thousands of hectares before it is noticed.

To assist with early detection, Pano AI, a U.S.-based company, is using artificial intelligence (AI) and 360-degree cameras to detect and alert for smoke.

The company was formed in 2020 — in the aftermath of the California wildfires — and Arvind Satyam, CEO of Pano AI, told CTVNews.ca in an interview that wildfire detection is part of the solution.

“The question we wanted to ask ourselves is, what is the role of tech to be a force multiplier in this space? Because if the answer is you need more resources, more planes, more boots on the ground, more engines, great, that’s a resource allocation thing,” Satyam said. “But our working hypothesis is that tech can really make a fundamental difference.”

Pano AI cameras are seen on a tower in Ribblebrook, Or. (Contributed Pano AI)

By using new advanced AI, the company has been able to accurately detect smoke and send quick alerts to officials.

Stakeholders told Satyam that often fires are only detected by humans calling in to emergency services or by satellites reporting heat signatures.

“By that stage, you’re actually missing many of the early moments of a fire,” he said.

Pano AI is a link between early detection and an alert system, Satyam said.

The company will mount its 360-degree camera on top of existing infrastructure like cell towers, and from there will monitor the landscape up to 24 kilometres away.

“Think of a lookout that’s operational, 24/7,” Satyam said.

This can become difficult in northern remote Canadian landscapes that do not have existing infrastructure. In instances where mounting a high vantage point is too difficult or costly, Satyam says the company can provide its services through satellite.

“Put it this way, every place that we’ve looked at in the U.S. and Australia, from a (communications) standpoint, we’ve been able to find a solution,” Satyam said.

The company trained AI to monitor the cameras and alert human counterparts if there’s a sign of smoke. From there the staffed office can confirm the smoke and alert authorities in the area.

Artificial intelligence captures an area where smoke is seen. (Pano AI)

“There’s a lot of time that gets spent in being able to know where the incident is and to be able to size up the incident. So there is the detection piece, but then there’s a confirmation piece,” he said. “Then there is the ability to respond in a rapid fashion if it’s a high rate of spread incident.”

Not only can the AI detect smoke, it can pinpoint how far it is in the view of the camera and monitor how quickly it is spreading.

The company has a partnership with Starlink, a satellite company owned by Elon Musk, to assist the AI in finding the exact coordinates of the fire.

“Satellites do a really good job at nighttime because they’re looking at heat anomalies, (but) during the day, you could have some false positives,” Satyam said. “So the idea of coupling cameras with AI but also having satellites becomes a really powerful twofer solution.”

The cameras built with AI, satellite detection and the alert response team come together and are given to governments as an entire package costing around $66,137 (US $50,000) per location for year-long monitoring.

Currently, the company is operating in parts of the U.S. and Australia.

“Early detection, with situational awareness followed by rapid initial attack (is critical),” Satyam said. “Minutes absolutely matter.”  

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