Every day, somewhere in the world, a wildfire is burning. That's ok - it's supposed to. Wildfires, including forest fires, have been burning for millennia.
Forest areas, rangeland, prairies, and even swamps have adapted to fires over millions of years. They usually stand to benefit from fire, which removes decadent growth, creates a network of diverse micro-ecosystems, and fertilizes the soil with potash and potassium, among other beneficial effects.
Wait! But aren't fires bad? And aren't forest fires worse now than they've ever been?
For the woods, no, fires are mostly good. But for people and buildings, obviously, fires are bad.
That's why - after several large fires in the late 1800s and the Big Blowup of 1910 - the U.S. Forest Service began a policy of total fire suppression. This approach became the U.S. standard. It's part of why fires are, yes, worse than they've ever been.
Fortunately, much more effective tools have been developed since 1920 to help firefighters, like radio repeater networks, remote monitoring equipment, and forest fire detection systems.
While putting out every fire everywhere seemed like a good idea at the outset, sadly, in the long run, it only made things worse. The more successfully wildland firefighters put out each blaze, the less healthy the wildlands grew.
Also, burning hydrocarbons for fire trucks, pumps, chainsaws, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft large and small, as well as the ongoing paving of the United States in asphalt, contribute to carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Many other human activities contribute to emissions as well. This raised global temperatures, changing weather patterns and increasing ignition percentages. It also stressed healthy plants, decreasing their ability to resist disease or insects, native or invasive, which loaded up the wildlands with yet more dead, dry organic matter ready to burn.
These factors have combined in many cases to alter the character of wildfires. A fire that once could have been a healthy, low-intensity burn mosaic through the understory now leaves a million-acre moonscape.
Wildfires are a very serious problem in the modern U.S., as well as the rest of the world.
At the same time, more and more people and their buildings are getting in the way of wildfires. Real estate developers, underwritten by insurance companies, have dramatically increased the number of homes existing in the "wildland-urban interface," which is government jargon for "the woods."
Many, if not most, of these buildings are not fire-resistant. Many are built in highly fire-prone areas, such as the middle and upper slopes of steep, brushy hills. Wildland firefighters are instructed to perform triage on neighborhoods in the urban interface, condemning sometimes entire subdivisions as indefensible.
Not only are humans more exposed to wildfires than ever, but they also start more of them. Cigarettes, campfires, cookouts, fireworks, broken glass, downed utility wires, tire chains on the highway and, broadly speaking, carelessness cause significantly more wildfires than lightning ever has.
Which is why, even though fire managers have recognized the folly of total suppression, they must continue to commit more and more people, equipment, and money to suppression efforts, to protect people from fires started by people. It's as vicious as a cycle gets.
What can be done about it? Individuals, corporations, and government agencies must work together to prevent, detect, manage, and suppress wildfires. The key to each step is effective and resilient communication.
Prevention efforts include education, capable forest management, adequate maintenance from companies with equipment in the wildland, and conscientious behavior. Like Smokey Bear says, "Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires."
However, no matter how good prevention efforts are, fires will start, threatening human lives and property. Which means that detection, analysis, and communication are essential to preventing tragedies.
Fire managers who know about new starts and know if weather, fuels, and topography will allow the fires to go big, will be able to plan effective management and suppression strategies. For this to happen, someone must see a fire, and tell fire management about it.
Different detection methods have varying levels of utility, and none is perfect. Companies looking to cash in on these conflagrations have begun promoting various video cameras, infrared sensors, distributed wireless sensor networks, and satellite solutions as improvements over human observers in lookout towers or 911 calls from citizens who see smoke or flames. Smoke, fire, propane, and other sensors help with sensing remote site conditions like this.
Regardless of the detection method, communication is paramount. As soon as a potentially dangerous fire is seen, fire managers need to know about it.
Cell phones are an important communication tool for fire managers, especially when they're at the office. But much work takes place out in the field, where cell reception can be spotty or nonexistent. As such, fire managers rely heavily on a network of radio repeater stations dotted along the high points of the wildlands of the U.S.
The flow of information goes from an official or unofficial fire spotting to the regional dispatch office, to the fire officer currently on duty, to local firefighters tasked with responding to the incident. If an evacuation notice must be sent out, then the fire officer on duty is responsible for initiating the process. Whether the smoke report comes in from a wireless sensor in the forest or a human lookout, the information is likely to travel through the repeater network.
Repeater networks are critical for detection. They're even more important for management and suppression. Fire crews use their cellphones at times, yes, but they rely on their radio networks for essential communications.
So, keeping radio repeater networks up and running is essential. Malfunctioning or unresponsive repeater stations can prevent smoke from being reported and can cut off communications to firefighters on the ground.
Since repeater networks are almost necessarily located in difficult-to-reach places like mountaintops, monitoring equipment conditions remotely as a supplement to periodic inspections is the most cost-effective solution for informed equipment maintenance.
Remote Terminal Units with attached telemetry sensors monitor site conditions, battery levels, generator fuel levels, and other important factors keeping maintenance managers informed. This way, informed repeater maintenance can be performed, ensuring communications stay active and firefighters stay safe.
Forest fires are more damaging than ever, largely due to human factors. Detecting, managing, and suppressing wildfires depends on effective communications networks. Radio repeater towers enable safe and effective fire responses. Remote monitoring hardware for repeating networks, including remote terminal units and forest fire detection sensors, aid in prevention, as well as wildfire management - helping to ensure prompt response and assistance where it's needed most.
DPS Telecom has the experience and expertise to help companies monitor what matters most - including their costs. Our technicians can work with you to install wildfire prevention and management tools such as telemetry sensors for more effective responses. Reach out and get a quote today!
Image courtesy Pixabay
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