Spotting a forest fire isn’t always easy. It can be like finding a needle in a haystack but that’s exactly when you want to find it – before it spreads out of control and has the potential to ruin communities. This is what aerial fire detection management is all about.

Aerial fire detection is the planning and executing of aircraft missions to detect forest fires in its earliest stages, as well as communicating that detection effectively to enable the best response to manage the fire. The best response will be the most effective at controlling the fire quickly to minimize damage, and at the same time ensure the most cost-effective approach.

A lot of time and effort goes into aerial fire detection, and with good reason. Consider the recent series of 2017 fires that raged across California, burning over 505,000 acres, causing significant damage to countless communities and industries, such as the wineries in the area, and costing the U.S. economy upwards of $100 billion.

Environmental impacts of fires are also a great concern. By some estimates, approximately 30% of global CO2 emissions are the result of uncontrolled wildfires. Forest fires can also potentially heat up the entire planet, according to a study done by NASA in 2016.

It’s worth noting, though, that not all wildfires are bad. Some naturally occurring fires benefit the environment as a part of the ecosystem’s renewal. As a result, controlled fires are used in certain places; but in other areas where fires are not desired, it’s critical to find and address them before they wreak havoc on their surroundings.

Did you know? Four out of five wildfires are started by people. Presumably they were unintentional, but a tiny spark mixed with dry weather and strong winds can quickly turn into a disaster like California experienced last year. One of the other causes of fire is lightning. “Since 1975 the number of fires ignited by lightning has increased between two and five percent.”

The Evolution of Aerial Fire Detection

For centuries, the only method of detecting fires was by direct human observation. In an effort to advance this method, towers were constructed on high points of land, so observers could see over a greater distance with a wide view. Many agencies still use towers as their primary method of fire detection. In the 1970s, aircrafts started being used to augment the towers, fueling the growth of related technology that has continued ever since. Today, other methods of fire detection include satellites, unmanned drones, sophisticated camera systems, and various type of optical and infrared sensors; but the best means of finding forest fires remains to be aerial detection with aircraft.

What Does Aerial Fire Detection Entail?

Agencies responsible for aerial fire detection and management plan daily detection routes depending on the risk factors and wildfire hazard conditions of their area of responsibility.

Based on plotted routes best able to find predicted wildfires, aircraft go out on patrols with a pilot and an observer. They fly at an altitude of 2500’ above ground level (AGL), with both pilot and observer constantly scanning the area for visual indications of smoke. When they see something, they report it through radio communications to the appropriate command center. If the fire is confirmed as a new ‘start’, the aircraft team generates a fire report, which consists of the location, fire behavior, size, other risks in the area, attack and resource considerations. A separate air attack aircraft then gets involved and serves as the command plane, performing air space management for all entities fighting the fire.

MAG Aerospace has been involved in all aspects of the aerial fire detection and management business for 35 + years in both Canada and the U.S. Over that period, they’ve learned several lessons worth noting as aerial fire detection operations continue to evolve, particularly with the inevitable growing emphasis on unmanned platforms.

  1. Early detection is key. This may seem obvious, but the sooner you spot a fire, the better chances you have of gaining control and extinguishing it. Almost all agencies continue to see the early detection of forest fires as an integral step in managing their response to fires, not only to prevent the horrific destruction that can result, but also for the safety of responding personnel and the residents that live near the fire. The cost of fire suppression grows exponentially as the fire grows so early detection is critical.
  2. New technology will be key to increasing detection rates. Aerial detection relies on the accuracy of the human eye, which means that visual observation can be affected by factors such as fatigue, clarity of eyesight, stamina and the ability to remain focused. That’s why the development of new technology that can be integrated into the aircraft to augment the human eye will be a significant factor in increasing the current aerial detection rate.
  3. Training and experience of operators in aircraft are key. Because detection relies on the human eye, staying focused over the course of a three-hour patrol is essential, but so is being able to accurately describe and report the type of fire so that information can be relayed to those who need to be able to act on it. Effective fire detection and reporting relies on dedicated, trained personnel that have a strong level of familiarity with what they are seeing. Developing a consistent and concise method and ability to convey a fire report is critical to ensure the correct weight of initial attack is sent to the fire.
  4. Revitalizing fleet of aircraft is critical. The primary types of aircraft used now are older small piston type aircraft, with the ideal platform being a high wing type of plane. Many of these aircraft are getting older, use Av Gas “100LL”, and in some circumstance’s parts are becoming more difficult to obtain. Thus, many aerial providers are investigating fleet renewable solutions. It is expected it will be a decade or two before unmanned aircraft will be safe, allowed and affordable to fly patrols of 700 to 1,000 kms.
  5. Attracting and retaining personnel is an ongoing challenge. Aerial detection involves a special type of flying – low level, higher risk and unknown duration as you find fires which is demanding as it involves a high level of focused attention. This differs from scheduled charter work which is planned point-to-point flying. Not only is it difficult to find enough of the right kind of people meeting the flight hour requirements, but retention of those individuals is equally challenging. Typically, pilots only stay in the job for three to four years before moving on to something else. In some cases, individuals will stay within the aerial detection realm and become air attack pilots, but that’s not the norm. Often, a company like MAG Aero will provide training in order to get all their pilots to the highest skill level because they recognize how critical training is.
  6. Patrol routes must be properly planned. This maximizes the probability of detection in the most efficient way possible. Agencies responsible for fire detection dedicate a considerable number of resources to effectively assess fire risk, the areas where there will be a potential wildfire and the patrols they fly are predetermined according to the assessed hazard. When planning patrol routes, several factors and variables have to be taken into consideration, including: the probability of fire occurrence, type of fire and speed of fire advancement, type and capabilities of detection aircraft, speed of aircraft, and method of observation (ocular or infrared). Additionally, it’s important to match the patrol route with the right type of search pattern to optimize the probability of identifying a new wildfire.

Finding the Spark before the Flame 

Aerial fire detection management is more complicated than it might first appear. It relies on proper planning, effective communication, trained and experienced pilots, functional aircraft, and reliable logistical, maintenance, and administrative support. Maintaining mission readiness and reliability is key; and supplying decision makers good information is vital:

  • With multiple fires, prioritizing fighting the right fire
  • Dispatching the right fire attack weight

As the transition to more sophisticated technology takes place, and as unmanned platforms take over, many of these points will remain a concern. There are a lot of moving parts involved in finding that elusive needle in the haystack, or that spark, before it becomes a flame.

MAG Aerospace has extensive experience within the aerial fire detection management industry to improve standard practices. We offer the optimum technology using the most efficient aerial platform to systematically increase the detection rates and reporting of forest fires. We don’t just add technology or further costs, but rather collaborate and integrate the right technology to expand on efficiencies.