These last weeks have seen Israel tortured by fierce forest fires and wildfires, threatening communities left and right. Tens of thousands had to evacuate their homes, and massive efforts to fight them have been released. Big fires represent huge challenges, at significant expense.
Back in 2003 the Province of British Columbia, Canada, was on fire. A stunning 250,000 hectares were destroyed. Then too, the answer by Canada’s Forest Fire Fighters was conventional, as in Israel in 2016. Another example from Canada (much more recent) also reached World News Headlines in the Summer of 2016: The raging fire surrounding Canada’s strategic hub for the Oil Sands industry near Fort McMurray, in Northern Alberta. An area of 590,000 hectares was burning: Over twice the size of the 2003 BC Firestorm, and equivalent to the entire surface area of Gaza and West Bank combined). Industry plants were shut down, 90,000 people were evacuated, and 2,400 homes were destroyed. That fire too was fought mainly with the self-same techniques as deployed 13 years earlier.
Huge Fires mean Massive Energy
The amount of energy present in a mature forest fire is simply colossal. When we’re burning a nice camp fire in the Rocky Mountains wilderness, whilst watching the stars, and the thing has been burning for five hours, you have to pour out a lot of water from the creek before that thing is out: And I mean: Out, dead, silent. No more smoke, no more heat sources, no more risks of reignition. We’re talking several dozens of gallons of water… On a camp fire. Now expand this picture to a fire the size of a soccer field, and you quickly realize you have problem. The average helicopter’s water bucket drops around a thousand gallons of water, and typically disappears for a while to a nearby lake (hopefully) to refill. When fires reach the size of several soccer fields, you are pretty much in for the ride. The bigger the fire, the bigger the problem.
Huge Fires also mean Big Business
Sadly, big fires also mean big business. Contracting the massive Boeing 747 Water Bomber costs between 100,000 to 200,000 dollars per hour. In Canada we have a whole fleet of generally privately contracted helicopters flying around, looking for “business” each summer. They all migrate from hotspot to hotspot, hoping for a piece of the pie. Obviously they also do tremendous work: These men and women, and their machines, help the ground crews fight these massive fires, and that’s all good. But it’s also mighty expensive, and very very risky. Even Insurance Companies stand to gain, as fire damage risks are typically reinsured, and payouts (sincerely) justify hikes in premiums, increasing a company’s overall annual revenues. Sounds counter-intuitive, but fires not only rejuvenate ecology, but can also benefit some players economically.
Israel is the Startup and Innovation Leader of the World. Its innovation track record covers many fields, including Technology. There exists a powerful opportunity for Israel in the aftermath of these disastrous fires. Think of a match for a second… Watch it burn… Blow it out. That’s a very simple picture, but that picture perfectly paints the direction in which the Forest Fire industry needs to go, and in which it would go–if it wasn’t for the fact that it would work against the very established industry designed to fight these fires. That’s exactly where Israel’s opportunity lies. Israel’s Forest Fire industry is currently not as substantially sized as that in countries like Canada or the USA (though they’re begging to be sized up). Here in Israel, we might just be in time, and reason might still prevail.
Fighting Fires when Small
Forest Fires are not unlike attacks by unfriendly forces. Israel is world-renowned in its proactive stand in its National Defense. An array of (mostly secret and covert ops) assets are used to obtain as early a warning or indication of a threat as possible. That same approach, that same logic is needed in proactive forest fire disaster prevention.
Israel is home to outstanding Technology industries. Her own Sensor and Detection technology firms could collaborate with existing fire detection solution providers, and develop a superior system not unlike Israel’s missile defence Iron Dome (but very much cheaper). Using military expertise, one can subsequently map out all the nation’s strategic assets (ranging from communities, to power plants, industries, pipelines, and infrastructure). One will discover that the majority of these assets (residing in fire-risk areas) can be placed under Early Detection / Rapid Response umbrella regions. Within these umbrellas one operates a Sensor and Detection network, plus a small Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Force. The QRA consists of two to three small modified crop spraying aircraft, loaded up with fire retardant, plus a small ground crew of firefighters. The moment an alert comes in, the QRA aircraft are scrambled, and within 15 minutes the fire (still tiny tiny) gets retained by the retardant lines dropped by the QRA aircraft. Next come the ground crews, and the job is done: Done fast, securely, controlled, and economically, typically leaving less than a tennis court’s size footprint of damage.
A Proven Concept, lacking World Leadership
The concept is not new. It just hasn’t been embraced by the world’s Forest Fire industry. In South Africa, commercial forest operators have been deploying this alternative approach with tremendous success since 1994 (see e.g. Firehawk, marketed by Alasia). Israel is the perfect nation to roll this out nation-wide, and obtain yet another global leadership role: Proactive forest fire detection and disaster prevention. The time has never been better, and it’s profoundly more affordable (and effective) than the alternative of fighting big fires.
Hans Dekkers is from BC Canada and is the former CEO of Firestorm Shield, a 2003 Multinational Joint Venture set up in response to that year’s disastrous firestorm season. Its proposals were received, but not adopted.