In January, the Biden administration announced it had drafted a US$ 50 billion plan to fight wildfires. The initiative will focus on areas where catastrophic wildfires have already severely impacted various communities in parts of California, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington — an area that cumulatively spans nearly 80,000 miles.
Anyone who’s been paying attention knows wildfires are a huge issue. In the U.S., over 58,000 wildfires burned over 7 million acres in 2021 alone. And in California, wildfire season has become a year-round event.
So how does the federal government plan to turn down the heat on large-scale fires that seem to only be increasing in intensity?
Shifting from extinguishing fires to preventing them
The change in the government’s approach to wildfires is largely a shift from reactive management to proactive prevention.
With the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires, especially in the Western United States, we can no longer accept fires as irregular but inevitable calamities. Instead of trying to put out fires at the first sign of a spark, the Biden administration’s wildfire strategy will largely involve preventing those sparks from occurring and spreading.
To avoid creating wildfire conditions and giving them room to spread, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will, perhaps counterintuitively, start thinning forests. They’ll start with those high-risk areas — effectively, 10% of fire zone land in the U.S., that constitutes 80% of the potential damages to communities.
In those “hotspots,” USFS will locate and remove trees, brush, and other vegetation that create, fuel, and exacerbate wildfires.
Prioritizing vegetation removal based on the risk to various population centers? Targeting highly specific areas to prevent the most damage? Leaving low- and no-risk plants alone to focus on that one old, dead tree that would burn up in seconds?
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like an intelligent vegetation management strategy to me.
What the Biden administration can learn from utilities
Especially in the Western U.S., many utilities have created — and some are even required to create — wildfire mitigation plans. And a huge part of those mitigation plans is more — and more effective — vegetation management (VM).
With the ambitious goal of targeting 80,000 miles — only 10% fire-prone land in the U.S. — the Biden administration should take a look at how different utilities are strategically pinpointing high-risk circuits in the middle of large swaths of territory to prevent wildfires.
Those of us in the VM sphere know that vegetation management is an ever-changing beast. Countless factors influence plant growth and vegetation spread. And of course, the spread and growth of communities is also constantly changing. This message from the Minnesota State Fire Marshal about “blurred WUI (wildland-urban interface) lines” is just one example of how people’s increasing movement into previously sparsely populated areas creates greater wildfire risks for everyone.
That means the impact and severity of a wildfire can change rapidly due to shifting factors in both nature and society.
Tracking all of those factors requires continuous monitoring. That’s why some utilities have started leveraging technology such as satellites and artificial intelligence (AI) to gain a better understanding of their network’s overall wildfire risk.
With over 7000 satellites orbiting the earth, satellite images have become relatively easy to obtain. Satellites can scan large territories in a matter of hours, compared to the days or even months it might take a field crew to inspect land manually. Continual scanning means continual updates on changing risk factors, helping utilities stay more informed.
The satellite record goes back to the 1970s. Using AI and machine learning (ML), we can combine near real-time data from recent satellite images with historical data to better understand patterns and changes in the land over time. Combined with even more data, such as weather, drought, and heat, we can better predict where wildfire hotspots are now, and where they will be over time if we don’t take action.
It’s time to fight fire with technology
A T&D World webinar from 2021 centered on wildfire and risk mitigation. In that webinar, Brad Smith of AiDash, a satellite-powered SaaS company transforming operations, maintenance, and sustainability, said, “If we know risk is increasing, what can we do to mitigate risk? We can never get risk down to zero. But we can do a lot of things to gain situational awareness and put ourselves in a position to act when we notice something is wrong.”
Technology like satellites and AI are the tools that can help us all — whether it be large IOUs, rural co-ops, or the federal government — be better prepared to act before a disaster like a large-scale wildfire happens.
Wildfires don’t start at random. Although unsafe or irresponsible human activity has caused many wildfires, the conditions still need to be right for a fire to spread and burn.
We can better track and understand those at-risk areas using technology like satellite analytics and AI. Using that same technology, we can also prioritize how we’re going to protect those areas and mitigate wildfire risk.
When we better understand the conditions that have created that risk, we can take the right actions at the right time to prevent wildfires.