How Kids Could Have Prevented the California Wildfires

Wed, Dec 16, 2009


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Photo: John McColgan

As the California wildfires ravaged the Golden State, inhabitants of America’s west coast saw their property engulfed and homes annihilated, while also suffering hundreds of casualties. Just last August, two firefighters died after their vehicle was overrun by flames north of Los Angeles. Yet in the scorched and blackened aftermath of the forest fires, the startling truth is that all this damage, loss and destruction could have been prevented by a group of kids.

Photo: H. Buck

The key to combating wildfires ripping through bone dry forests and bringing about untold harm is detection. Where there’s smoke there’s fire is a saying that trips easily off the tongue, but with wildfires the tough reality is that the smoke itself is often out of sight. Detecting these potentially deadly blazes while they are still smouldering can help stop them reaching catastrophic proportions.

Photo: H. Buck

It was this basic principle of detection that got a team of young people in California thinking about how to reduce the soaring numbers of wildfires that have become an issue not just in their neck of the woods but around the globe – especially given the massive amount of CO2 that gets released into the air. In an age of web cams and camera phones, it’s perhaps small wonder that the answer was surveillance.

090818_Forest Guard Design2

Named the FIRST Lego League Forest Guards, the youngsters, in partnership with Sony Europe, came up with the concept of an early wildfire detection system. The idea was to identify large forest fires more quickly using a network of solar powered CCTV cameras mounted on poles, linked to citizen fire watchers over the web, to offer a picture of the warning signs of wildfires before they manage to spread.

Photo: Erik Charlton

Testing for the idea is already underway at the Forestry Commission’s site at Alice Holt, Surrey, UK and near the children’s home at Tahoe, California. The kids have first-hand experience of being evacuated from their homes because of wildfires, so were well placed to see the need for a fast and effective system of detection, where more eyes keeping watch would be better equipped to foresee future infernos.

Image: NSF

For their efforts, the fresh-faced Forest Guards won an International Children’s Climate Call competition in Copenhagen earlier this year organised by LEGO and FIRST, a non-profit organisation that inspires students in science. Since then, their idea has since been realised by Sony Europe, with the upshot that the prototype – complete with R2D2-esque camera domes – is now being developed and tested.

Photo: H. Buck

Although there is an interest in using satellite technology as well as other digital imaging technology to detect fires, none of it is generally used. This new idea is also the first to include solar-powered CCTV cameras dispersed throughout the forest that allow the pictures of this environment to be broadcast over the Internet and from there be downloaded by anyone in the form of a website or screensaver.

Photo: Eugene Zelenko

Morgan David, Director of Research and Development for Sony Europe, who led the development team, explained some of the difficulties involved: “With image analysis, the smoke is difficult to differentiate from steam or clouds. But as a result of a lot of long hours put in, we have a pragmatic solution. And the real magic is the hundreds of thousands of eyes out there on the Net attracted by nice imagery.”

Photo: H. Buck

Yet it was more than just a case of visualising wildfires over the web. Working with the forestry people in Tahoe, the kids gained an understanding of how important it is to see not just in certain places but many – hence the idea of a network. And Sony Europe has further combined the network and camera technology with imaging software written by them. “Innovation isn’t easy,” concedes David. But it is possible.

Photo: H. Buck

The technology was presented at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last week, with the princes of Sweden and Denmark among those who dropped by the Forest Guard stand. If such interest is maintained, the wildfire detection system will let fire fighters know immediately when a wildfire is breaking out in their area – and so prevent future wildfires in California and elsewhere in the world.

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This post was written by:

Karl Fabricius - who has written 256 posts on Environmental Graffiti.

Karl was raised in Wales and currently lives in Bristol, though his family tree branches to both sides of the Atlantic. Besides holding an English MA, he’s made a documentary on grassroots boxing, played drums in punk rock bands, and traveled some lush parts of the globe. Back from copywriting in Dubai’s desert, he’s thirsty to get scribbling about things worth scribbling about – especially the environment.

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13 Comments For This Post

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  1. Dave Babbit Says:

    These kids are awesome, scarily awesome!

  2. Simon Thorne Says:

    How long till we see the technology actually used?

  3. Angela Smith Says:

    Dave, get a life! This idea is nothing new

  4. Don Says:

    Great idea but the SoCal fire system is driven by the vegetation. Unless you can stop 100% of the ignitions to infinity, SoCal will burn. The solution is to burn it under moderate weather, not the 99 percentile weather the Station fire burned in.
    And the fuel was continuous, 160,000 acres at over 30 year old min.

  5. dwindle Says:

    A computer monitoring satellite images would be cheaper, easier, and more accurate. It’s worth noting that forest fires are there for a reason, and we should take the ecosystem into account. Many types of trees and plants can only be germinated after a fire, and the fires clear out the brush that interferes with animals.

  6. Jeff Says:

    The problem that most people do not understand is that the reason why SoCal is having these fires is because we are trying to hard to prevent them in the first place. By preventing them, we prevent the natural seasonal fires which clear out dead bushes and other high-susceptible vegitation and allow room for new plants to sprout. As a result Socal builds up on excessive amounts of ignitable brush that when it does lite by chance, the magnitude of the wildfire is huge.

  7. Dsheray Says:

    This is a great blog with a good message. Keep It Up!

  8. Jimmy Says:

    I think that global warming has to do with the fact that fires burn more and more, but so does overpopulation, people can’t seem to be held accountable for fires that happen naturally, but the can be accountable for some kind of carelessness.

  9. John R. Carlisle Says:

    I think aside from lightening a lot of forest fires are probably started accidentally. Kids have a natural tendency to be curious and especially with fire and fireworks. Teaching them at a young age the dangers and devastation that a forest fire can have on an area and human lives in important. Our The Calgary branch of the John R. Carlisle Institute has a fund raiser every year for forest fire prevention and education.

    John R. Carlisle

  10. Nawaz khan Says:

    Very amazing photo

  11. dinesh Says:

    i feel this ad is good idea to prevent invironment from polution.

  12. brad Says:

    what is common sense to us right now may not be common sense to kids. curiosity killed the cat. in this case, the forests. teaching them will definitely help prevent forest fires.

  13. malgwi abdallah Says:

    that greatest moment is there in his area
    I think that global warming has to do with the fact that fires burn more and more, but so does overpopulation, people can’t seem to be held accountable for fires that happen naturally, but the can be accountable for some kind of carelessness.