Can we use new technologies to predict, detect and fight wildfires?

A man watches a wildfire in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

Climate change has brought greater and more frequent weather extremes in recent years. which has led to intense storms, flash floods, droughts, and ravaging wildfires. Wildfires in particular have become a global phenomenon, breaking out more frequently and with more ferocity in countries across the world – and it’s likely that the number and intensity of these wildfires will continue to increase due to climate change.

A recent study from Nesta Challenges, which designs challenge prizes that help solve pressing societal problems that currently lack solutions, found that environmental challenges are one of the most important societal issues that the UK faces today, with climate change seen as a national concern.

The study canvassed 2,200 Brits, including young teenagers right through to the elderly, to determine their views on society today. Interestingly, under 16s and those aged 65+ are the most likely to consider environmental challenges as the most important issue we currently face (67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively).

When forests and other natural environments which actively store carbon are burned, they release huge amounts of CO2 in a very short time. Wildfires have a significant and immediate impact on human health by lowering air quality and will have longer term impacts on mental health if natural calming spaces become rarer and more difficult to access. Wildfires leave devastation in their wake; destroying wildlife habitats and leaving behind long-lasting changes on the ground.

There are also huge costs associated with the combat and clean-up of wildfires. In the US, $3.5bn was spent on fighting wildfires in California alone in 2018, and over the last decade, fire suppression costs in Canada have ranged from about $500m to $1bn a year. Current fire management techniques are expensive and put human resources at risk: Nesta Challenges believes tech and innovation can play a vital role in bringing new solutions to decelerate climate change and mitigate its impacts, support the preservation of biodiversity and environments, while safeguarding human health. In fact, 60 per cent of people questioned for the Nesta Challenges study said that new and emerging technologies have the potential to be used for social good.


There are a number of new technological solutions emerging using artificial intelligence, data management, robotics and high-resolution mapping software that can help to prevent wildfires. An example of such technology is WIFIRE from the University of California San Diego, which was designed to predict a wildfire’s path in real time. Currently used by a handful of California fire departments, it is being tested in more than 100 other jurisdictions.

However, at present these existing solutions are mainly limited to tools that help firefighters combat wildfires on the ground. In order to leverage technological innovation we must be visionary, imagining new frontiers which though implausible today, help unlock creativity and progress. Cast your mind into the future and imagine a world where human beings no longer risk their lives to fight dangerous fires. Instead swarms of fire suppression drones fill the sky, sensing and adapting automatically to subtle shifts in the wind, able within mere seconds to detect the direction a fire is spreading or even use AI to predict where the fire will move, and contain it.

Another future might hold roving lighting rods, which roam through lightening hot spots serving to attract and neutralise lightning bolts, perhaps even storing the charge and translating it to a source of clean energy.

Imagine forest surveillance bots that have the technology to scan forest conditions (the undergrowth, debris, and overall dryness) to detect high-probability outbreak areas and then deploy teams of service bots to remediate the area, thus neutralising the threat of a fire.

The thought experiment could go on, and although most ideas won’t be feasible, the work of innovators is to spot those unique opportunities where something visionary can transform into reality. What we know is that the pace of innovation can be accelerated and fostered effectively. Challenge Prizes attract innovators and enhance their solutions by creating incentives, such as the opportunity to receive cash prizes, engage in accelerator programs, and gain unprecedented access to a network of key experts and organisations. Nesta Challenges is a leader in Challenge Prize methodology and works cross-sectorally, having developed and run Challenge Prizes across a myriad of areas from environment & energy, to financial and health sectors, to wellbeing and young people.

Climate change is a pressing issue of our time, and Nesta Challenges is looking at ways we can leverage Challenge Prizes to unearth game-changing solutions in the fight against climate change. We’re starting this process with an investigation into wildfires, to learn about the key issues, and importantly, the key gaps where technology and innovation are needed. If you are interested in contributing to or learning about this research, please contact us.

Liz Vossen is programme manager at Nesta Challenges at the innovation charity Nesta.

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