02 Nov 2015
Firefighting: Revamping Technologies to Fight the Fires of the Future
Wildfires are a force of nature that can greatly benefit ecosystems by renewing and keeping healthy habitats. Organisms adapt to the natural fire cycles of an area and some species thrive on the patches left by one. In turn, wildfires open the door to more species to coexist in the same landscape and increase diversity. These include the fires that are purposely triggered by human intervention whose purpose is to relieve the land of potential uncontrollable catastrophes by making controlled small ones.
On the other hand, when human recklessness is to blame, not only the wild inhabitants of an area are menaced by the unexpected but complete communities are at high risk. The intense heat and burning; the ashes and smog will affect everything on their path.
According to the Canadian Natural Resources office , in the last 25 years, wildfires across Canada have consumed a yearly average of 2.3 million hectares, this translates in about 8,300 incidents each year. Canada has about 10% of the world’s forests. If we add the constant increase in the average temperature during summer seasons each year , the delicate equilibrium of natural ecosystems affected by wildfires is being more and more disrupted.
Statistical prediction of risk areasThanks to the data collected over more than 100 years in weather prediction, natural wildfires patterns and distribution of wild forests, now we can safely establish high-risk zones as well as appropriate times to trigger controlled fires in designated spots to protect greater areas from a stronger environmental catastrophe. Weather prediction based on the study of previous phenomena is a technique that has been around for a while now. With the use of computerized models and satellite imagery, we can now make so much more with all this information. Best of all, this information is now available to anyone, allowing governments and emergency responders plan ahead before an unexpected fire hits.
What to do when the unexpected happens?
Unfortunately, averting the danger of a wildfire, despite all the technological advancements at hand, is impossible. Chances are, a thunderstorm could be enough to trigger a wildfire of strong impact. A lit charcoal from a barbecue that was dragged by the wind, an unfinished cigarette or a child’s curiosity with fire for example, are all plausible unforeseen causes that can set a forest or a field ablaze.
Controlling these hungry monsters can be a dangerous and delicate manoeuver, and firefighters with firetrucks alone are no longer enough to do the task. Flying boats, fire bombers or air tankers are actually, one of the most efficient tools employed to dissipate and control the expansion of wildfires. But the flying boat’s origin is far from that to help in wildfires control. Originally this bulky structure had its main use for transport of passengers, with a hollow body closely shaped like a boat that allowed buoyancy in water. It does not require a landing gear, in the modern sense, to operate; as long as the flying boat is located on a body of water long enough for it to land and take off, hence its name.
These planes were very popular after the First World War and set the basis for the modern airlines. During their Second World War, their use was mostly relegated to evacuation of civilians, rescuing missions and transport of troops. After the war, its commercial application was rapidly overtaken by its land-based counterpart which had gained much popularity. Several runaways were built for military operations and with the war ended, these were the foundations of today’s airports. Asphalt doesn’t suffer with the elements as much as does water. The transition from flying boats to standard “airplanes” was the logic step forward. Nowadays, these flying boats find their niche applications mainly in firefighting and granting access to roadless locations or islands.
Figure 5. Bombardier 415 Superscooper making a water drop over fire in 2006.
In the firefighting business, no fire bomber is more famous than the Bombardier 415 Superscooper. This is the evolution of the former Canadair CL415 and CL215 Superscoopers. This plane’s design was conceived specifically for aerial firefighting with resounding success. Introduced in 1994, it is used not only in Canada, but the United States, Italy and France amongst others. This water bomber can scoop up to 6,140 litres of water per pass covering a distance over 400m in about 12 seconds. It has a flying range of over 2,400 Km making it perfect for long operations of fire control. But this is not the only model that has been designed recently for aerial firefighting. Other models with equal proven success are Beriev Be-200 Altair (Russia, 12,000 litres of cargo load, only 9 have been produced), Harbin SH-5 (China, mostly military applications, only one fitted for firefighting) and the Consolidated’s PBY Catalina (About a dozen remain in service, mainly used for firefighting).
Figure 6. Beriev’s Be-200 Altair in action scooping water.
Unfortunately, for many airplane companies this is not a big business and there is not much private capital flowing towards developing better water bombers . Luckily the majority of these air tankers were built to last a lifetime, and some of them have been in service for several decades, the Hawaii Mars water bomber has been in service over 50 years in British Columbia and an upgrade is long overdue .
Many planes that were not intended as a fire bomber in the past have been subject to very interesting transformations lately. That is the case of the two well-known models that have been adapted by the Australian government to do aerial firefighting this 2015 summer season . The first model, a DC-10 Very Large Airtanker, nicknamed Southern Belle, with a payload of almost 44,000 litres of water. The second model, a Lockheed L100-30 (otherwise known as the C-130 Hercules) Air tanker nicknamed Thor, with a payload of 15,000 litres of water. These two repurposed aircrafts are the product of the necessity and creativity for bigger and faster aerial firefighting units around Australian territory.
Figure 7. DC-10 “Southern Belle” on demonstration in 2015 at South Hampton State, Australia .
Climatic and atmospheric conditions seem to favor dryer hot days in the summer, with little to no rain. We have to look for long term solutions to solve this tendency for more aggressive fires all over the world. In the meantime, making use of the technologies we have had at hand to solve problems that are well known is the way to go. Whether by integrating several databases of information to generate new predictive models about fire probabilities or by modifying existing platforms for new purposes, these planes are given new life by reducing wastes. New technologies in fire retardants compounds, mixed with the water carried by these water bombers is a common alternative widely used for this purpose. Remember that a wildfire not only affects the communities around the area, but all the wildlife of the ecosystem will be affected by this.
Luis Felipe Gerlein Reyes
Luis Felipe Gerlein R. is a Ph.D. candidate at ÉTS. His research interests include nanofabrication and characterization of optoelectronic devices based on lead chalcogenides, carbon-based nanostructures and perovskite materials.
Program : Electrical Engineering