/How the U.S. battles forest fires and why more innovation is desperately needed

How the U.S. battles forest fires and why more innovation is desperately needed

Some of the largest wildfires ever recorded are raging across the west. Millions of acres have burned in California, Oregon and Washington. Smoke has reached as far as Europe. 

Firefighters like Michael Seaton, who lost his home in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, have worked more than a month straight.

“So you’re out on the line for two days and you’re sleep deprived out there. So I’ve seen people standing up with their eyes closed and they’re basically asleep,” said Seaton, a CAL FIRE engineer.

“All of this is on the heels of wildfire emergencies in 2019, 2018 and 2017 that points to the pattern of how climate warming is predisposing large landscapes to unprecedented fire activity,” said Doug Morton, Chief of NASA’s Biospheric Sciences Laboratory.

Heat waves and drought have left a thick layer of dry vegetation easily sparked by people and lightning. Although nearly 85% of wildland fires in the U.S. are caused by humans, people continue moving to fire-prone areas in droves.

“How are we as a country spending our money? Are we going to have an F-35 dogfight with the Russians or the Chinese? Maybe, but the more likely thing is we’re going to continue to burn our citizens over,” said Graham Kent, a seismologist who runs a system of cameras that help quickly assess fires.

New tools to fight fires

For decades, firefighting has been slow to change. Now, Kent is among a handful of mostly small groups bringing new solutions to the way we fight, detect and prevent wildfires.

With this season’s fires burning within miles of Silicon Valley, home to the world’s tech giants and some of their billionaire leaders, Kent and others are calling for more money, and ideas, to stop the trend.

“They should be involved in wide scale fuel reduction programs. They should be donating more to the local fire services. There is no place on the planet where there is a greater disconnect between high tech and climate change than where the titans of Silicon Valley live. It’s scary,” Kent said.

Google is now integrating easily misunderstood satellite data into Maps, giving users a quick way to view fire perimeters, stats and road closures.

“In 2017 and before we would show a map of the affected area, but we could only drop a pin showing that a fire was happening somewhere there. And a pin wasn’t super helpful for users who are trying to figure out, well, how close am I to that fire? Is it going to come in, affect me in my town?” said Ruha Devanesan, who leads Google’s Crisis Response Product Partnerships.

Other new tools include a game-changing tracking software for firefighters called Tablet Command, Long Range Acoustic Devices for more audible evacuation orders, anti-flammable coating for homes, and a new type of tank to make it easier for helicopters to quickly grab water to drop on nearby fires.

Watch the video to learn more about how the U.S. fights fires and why innovation needs a major boost if it will ever catch up with the rapid rate at which the west is burning.

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