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How AI could help fight devastating wildfires

WEF report urged the increased use of AI and machine learning in predicting and directing responses to wildfires

Global wildfires in 2021 released an estimated 6,450 mega tonnes of CO2. (Pexels/ IslandHopper X)
Global wildfires in 2021 released an estimated 6,450 mega tonnes of CO2. (Pexels/ IslandHopper X)

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The average annual global cost of wildfires is around USD 50 billion, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said on Monday as it pitched for use of artificial intelligence in fighting them and containing carbon emissions caused by such tragedies. In a report released on the first day of its five-day annual meeting, WEF said that global wildfires in 2021 released an estimated 6,450 mega tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

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The US has experienced around 1.5 million wildfires since 2000 while in Australia, more than 3 billion animals were killed or displaced in the 2019–2020 bushfire season.

This devastating trend is set to continue, affecting lives and livelihoods the world over, WEF said while citing data from the World Meteorological Organisation, which predicts an increase in extreme fires globally of up to 30% by 2050.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 30% of the world's population is exposed to deadly heat waves on more than 20 days a year.

Referring to its FireAId initiative, launched last year to address the wildfire crisis with the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence), WEF said it was successfully piloted by Koc Holding in the South Aegean and West Mediterranean region of Turkiye in 2022.

This wildfire risk mapping and logistic planning project improved wildfire prediction by combining static and meteorological datasets and reduced both response time and risk to firefighters, WEF said.

Due to its success, the approach is being scaled for wider use, it added.

"During this difficult period of growing fire seasons and climate change, we are committed to continuing and strengthening this global engagement. We hope this report will inspire you to join these efforts, which can address the key drivers of catastrophic fires, increase the pace and scale of forest management and improve the resilience of increasingly threatened communities globally," WEF Managing Director Jeremy Jurgens said.

WEF report urged the increased use of AI and Machine Learning (ML) in predicting and directing responses to wildfires and managing forests.

The Global Risks Report 2023, launched recently by WEF, had also highlighted the failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change, natural disasters and extreme weather events, and biodiversity loss and environmental degradation among the top risks faced by societies.

Wildfires have occurred naturally for millions of years and are integral to the maintenance of healthy forests. Mediterranean forests burn down entirely once every 50 years as part of their natural cycle but climate change is making wildfires more frequent, larger and more devastating.

Forest lands provide the majority of freshwater supplies—80 per cent of the total in the US—but wildfires severely affect water quality in rivers, reservoirs and streams.

Ash settles on water surfaces while burned landscapes may erode more quickly, increasing the accumulation of sediments in water. After a wildfire, the soil may have reduced capacity to absorb and store water, increasing the likelihood of flooding.

Sensors with in-built AI can collect acoustic information or operate as smoke detectors in forests and alert authorities within the first hour of a wildfire starting, WEF said.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can be flown over fires to provide live images and help firefighters plan their response.

Two programmes are under development in the US to provide near-live fire information, it added.

Google also uses geostationary satellites to produce near real-time maps while NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management (FIRMS) uses low-orbit satellites and software developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) to provide live fire data with a lag of just 60 seconds between earth observation and wildfire detection.

Deloitte, which joined the FireAId initiative in June 2022, is developing forecasting models and a scenario engine, together with an intuitive user interface (a dynamic map that users can pan and zoom, with key statistics and controls).

It is looking to use its technology partnership with NVIDIA, developers of the Earth-2 digital model of the planet, to create a digital twin simulation for firefighters, allowing them to plot a fire's likely progress and the effectiveness of proposed responses.

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