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TED Vancouver: Fighting wildfires from space

28 April 2023
Aerospace executive talks new tools to help fight wildfires from space. With “mega fires” of more than 40,000 hectares becoming more prevalent, George Whitesides says better satellites are among the innovative tools firefighters need to cope with them.

Former aerospace executive George Whitesides has ideas for bringing new tools to combat the risk of mega fires — wildfire conflagrations greater than 40,000 hectares that are happening with increasing frequency. Those tools include better satellites and more terrestrial remote sensing technologies for firefighters to use in decision making, which Whitesides touched on during a presentation at the TED Talks conference Wednesday in Vancouver.

Mega fires can threaten aquifers, incinerate biodiversity “and even cause forest conversion,” where flames scorch the landscape so deeply that trees don’t grow back, Whitesides said. Then they also have a huge impact on carbon emissions. “I think there’s a lot more we could be doing to support frontline firefighters with technology,” Whitesides, the former Virgin Galactic CEO said of his reinvention as “firetech” entrepreneur.

He added that firefighting agencies typically don’t have a lot of money for research, so he’s using his venture-capital startup Convective Capital to direct private financing into remote drone-based systems and satellite technology. “We’ve been talking with different companies and entities who are thinking about ways to improve that radically … by a factor of 100, or more,” Whitesides said.

B.C.-based wildfire expert Mike Flannigan agreed that satellite imagery has become an important decision-making tool for firefighting agencies recently and they are all looking for better information as climate change ramps up fire risks across Western Canada. “Unwanted fires are put out by boots on the ground,” said Flannigan, the B.C. research chair in fire science at Thompson Rivers University. “Technology helps make the decision where to put those boots, but it’s the boots that do the work. But decision making is critical.”

To that point, Whitesides’ TED presentation was less about technology and more about a holistic approach to wildfire management, which includes “building resilient landscapes.” That means letting some fires burn, at appropriate times, to clear the forest of the accumulations of dry brush and scrub that act as tinder for mega fires.

And Whitesides said higher-resolution satellites, coupled with remote sensors on drones, can help managers decide which fires pose a danger and need to be fought and which are beneficial enough to let burn. In B.C., Flannigan said managers refer to that as a “modified response,” and Canadian authorities are leading their own technological effort to improve the information used in making decisions on when to do it.

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