Battle to contain rampant wildfires gets a stellar boost

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Battle to contain rampant wildfires gets a stellar boost

New web-based system uses satellites to work out how quickly a fire is likely to spread

Journalist


It took a million years to make fire. Now humankind is struggling to contain it, using space technology to try and predict massive wildfires currently marching across the planet.
SA’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) reports an upsurge in interest for a satellite-based fire information system that predicts how a fire will behave – allowing humans to react accordingly. The Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS) has already proved a popular tool in dealing with increased frequency of local wildfires caused by a combination of climate change, population growth and alien vegetation.
A series of fatal local firestorms, including the inferno that ripped through Betty’s Bay earlier this month, has highlighted the logistical nightmare facing fire protection agencies.
While extinguishing runaway wildfires is hugely difficult, experts believe better fire forecasting at least helps authorities minimise damage by forewarning affected communities living in the main fire “danger zone”, which scientists call the Wildland Urban Interface.
While extinguishing runaway wildfires is hugely difficult, experts believe better fire forecasting at least helps authorities minimise damage by allowing affected communities more forewarning.
CSIR senior engineer Riaan van den Dool confirmed resurgent interest in AFIS since the Knysna fire disaster. “We’ve definitely noticed bigger interest in the service, especially from fire services and fire protection associations,” Van den Dool said.
He said the CSIR was currently engaging both the government and private industry stakeholders interested in the AFIS service. “We believe that the insurance industry can play a big role in building wildfire-resilient communities, and we are currently working with insurance companies to achieve this,” he said.
Web-based AFIS provides fire-spread simulations informed by numerous data-sets including weather, topography and vegetation type. “Given these parameters the system can work out how quickly the fire is likely to spread,” Van den Dool said. “People can then use that information to help them make decisions.”
Jasper Slingsby, a fynbos expert with the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), said recent data confirmed an upsurge in fire frequency: “We do know that there have been more fires and greater burnt area in the nature reserves of the Western Cape over the past few years.” An goinging concern was the “messy fuzz” of houses embedded in fynbos and alien vegetation, Slingsby said.
Overstrand fire chief Lester Smith said authorities were hard pressed to contain massive fires due to human development in areas of high fuel load, in a context of global warming: “You have entire towns or parts of a town established in a highly flammable built-up fuel load fanned by extreme winds, dry conditions, high temperatures, boxed in between a mountain and the sea,” Smith said.
“The types of fires we experienced recently at Betty’s Bay, Hermanus and Franskraal are undoubtedly becoming the norm; fires spread over great distances within minutes. Each year, fires are becoming more and more extreme, thus confirming that climate change is real.”

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