Artificial intelligence harnessed to fight wildfires in the West

DENVER — With wildfires growing larger and more destructive as the West dries up and warms, agencies and officials tasked with preventing and fighting wildfires may soon have a new tool to add to their arsenal of prescribed burns, pickaxes, chainsaws and planes.

The high-tech help could come from a field not normally associated with fighting wildfires: artificial intelligence. And space.

Lockheed Martin Space, based in Jefferson County, leverages decades of experience in managing satellites, space exploration and providing information to the U.S. military to deliver more accurate data more quickly to ground crews. They are talking with the US Forest Service, university researchers and a Colorado state agency about how their technology could help them.

By generating more timely information about conditions on the ground and running computer programs to process massive amounts of data, Lockheed Martin representatives say they can map fire perimeters in minutes rather than time. They say the artificial intelligence, or AI, and machine learning the company has applied to military use can improve predictions about the direction and speed of a fire.

“The scenario in which wildfire operators and commanders work is very similar to that of the organizations and individuals who defend our homeland and our allies. It’s a dynamic environment spanning multiple activities and responsibilities,” said Dan Lordan, senior director of AI integration at Lockheed Martin’s Artificial Intelligence Center.

Lockheed Martin aims to use its technology developed over years in other areas to reduce the time it takes to gather information and make decisions about wildfires, said Rich Carter, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Space mission solutions.

“The faster you can react, I hope you can contain the fire faster and protect people’s property and lives,” Carter said.

The concept of a regular fire season is all but gone as drought and warmer temperatures make western lands primed to ignite. In late December, the Marshall Fire burned 991 homes and killed two people in Boulder County. The Denver area just had its third driest April with just 0.06 inches of humidity, according to the National Weather Service.

Colorado had the most fire weather warnings in April than any other April in the past 15 years. Crews quickly brought the wind-driven fires under control which forced evacuations along the Front Range and across the Eastern Plains. But six Monte Vista families lost their homes in April when a fire burned down part of the southern Colorado town.

Since 2014, Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control has flown aircraft equipped with infrared and color sensors to detect wildfires and provide the most up-to-date information possible to ground crews. The onboard equipment is integrated with the Colorado Wildfire Information System, a database that provides images and details to local fire officials.

“Last year, we uncovered nearly 200 new fires that nobody knew about,” said Bruce Dikken, unit chief for the agency’s multi-mission aircraft program. “I don’t know if any of those 200 fires would have become big fires. I know they didn’t become big fires because we found them.

When the two Pilatus PC-12 planes began flying in 2014, Colorado was the only state with such a program transmitting the information “in near real time,” Dikken said. Lockheed Martin representatives recently spent time in the air on planes to see if its AI could speed up the process.

“We don’t find all the fires that we fly over and it can certainly be faster if we could use some sort of technology that could, for example, automatically draw the perimeter of the fire,” Dikken said. “Right now it’s more of a manual process.”

Something like the 2020 Cameron Peak Fire, which at 208,663 acres is Colorado’s largest wildfire, could take hours to map, Dikken said.

And often, people on airplanes are tracking multiple fires at once. Dikken said the faster they can collect and process data on the perimeter of a fire, the faster they can move on to the next fire. If it takes a few hours to map a fire, “what I drew at the beginning may be a little different now,” he said.

Lordan said Lockheed Martin engineers who flew with state crews, using video and imagery collected on the flights, were able to produce fire maps in as little as 15 minutes.

The company spoke to the state about carrying an additional computer that could help “analyze all of this information” and relay the map of the fire while still airborne to ground crews, Dikken said. The agency is waiting to hear the results of Lockheed Martin’s experiments aboard the plane and how AI could help the state, he added.

— “Actionable intelligence”

The company also speaks with researchers at the US Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana. Mark Finney, a forestry researcher, said he was early in discussions with Lockheed Martin.

“They have a keen interest in applying their skills and abilities to the wildfire problem, and I think that would be welcome,” Finney said.

The Missoula lab has been involved in fire research since 1960 and developed most of the fire management tools used for operations and planning, Finney said. “We’re pretty well positioned to understand where new things and abilities might be useful in the future and some of those things certainly could be.”

However, Lockheed Martin is focused on technology and that’s “not really where the most effective use of our efforts would be,” Finney said.

“Prevention, mitigation and preventative management activities are where the big opportunities lie to change the trajectory we are on,” Finney said. “Improving reactive management is unlikely to yield huge benefits because the underlying source of the problem is fuel structure across large landscapes as well as climate change.”

Logging and prescribed burns, or fires started under controlled conditions, are some of the management practices used to get rid of fuel sources or create a more diverse landscape. But these methods have sometimes been met with resistance, Finney said.

As severe as the Cameron Peak fire is, Finney said prescribed burns carried out by the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests over the years have lessened the intensity of the fire and altered the movement of the flames in places. .

“Unfortunately, they hadn’t had time to complete their scheduled work,” Finney said.

Lordan said the value of artificial intelligence, whether in preventing fires or responding to a fire, is producing accurate and timely information for fire managers, which he called “actionable intelligence.”

One example, Lordan said, is information collected and managed by federal agencies on vegetation types and conditions across the country. He said updates are done every two to three years. Lockheed Martin uses data from satellites managed by the European Space Agency, which updates the information approximately every five days.

Lockheed is working with Nvidia, a California software company, to produce a digital simulation of a wildfire based on an area’s topography, vegetation condition, wind and weather to help predict where and how it will burn. After the fact, the companies used information about the Cameron Peak fire, plugging in the most recent satellite data on fuel conditions, and generated a video simulation that Lordan said was similar to actual behavior and movement. of the fire.

While appreciating the help technology provides, Colorado State’s Dikken and Forest Service’s Finney said there will always be a need for people to “ground check.”

Applying AI to wildfire fighting isn’t about shutting people out of the loop, Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said. “Someone will always be in the know, but the people currently in the know are besieged by so much data they can’t sort through it fast enough. That’s where it comes from. »

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