New (and Old) Strategies to Combat One of Humanity’s Oldest Foes

Too hot to handle.

By the time you read this, chances are parts of this country will be on fire—along with several states south of the border, some portion of Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and a good chunk of Siberia. If we’re lucky, it will be only the forest that burns.

Warming temperatures, ongoing drought, and urban sprawl are forcing the world to confront one of the oldest technologies: fire. In the modern era, instead of trying to understand wildfire, studying our vulnerabilities to it, and changing our behaviour, we have kept doing the same things, assuming water and fire retardant will solve the problem.

That’s changing. Across the world, scientists are turning to new technologies to help save our forests. Pegasus Imagery, near Edmonton, uses drones equipped with electric optical infrared to perform thermal imaging for plotting fire lines and identifying hot spots unseen by the naked eye. Descartes Labs in Santa Fe has built artificial intelligence to sift through constantly updated satellite images for telltale puffs of smoke, in an effort to snuff out small fires before they grow into monster burns.

Old technologies are being revived, too. In Portugal, grassroots organizations are encouraging replanting of fire-resistant native species to replace quick-burning eucalyptus and pine. Catalonia’s fire services conduct prescribed burns to reduce deadfall and brush. And across the Western U.S., herders use goats to trim back grass, shrubs, and branches that form a “fire ladder” when wildfires strike. As a bonus, animal waste ends up fertilizing the soil, helping it retain more water and prevent fires from taking hold.

Here at home, First Nations aid fire prevention efforts with low-intensity cultural burning early in the year to promote the sprouting of medicinal and food plants. Not only is this an excellent way to reduce the fuel load in bone-dry summers, but such burning also rejuvenates soil bacteria and encourages plant growth in a way that superhot conflagrations do not.

Such practices represent a new way of thinking about fire: rather than simply a malignant force that destroys the economic value of the land, fire helps it support future generations. It is perhaps the most humbling indictment of modernity—a reminder that modern knowledge, modern tools, and modern thinking often lead us back to where humanity started.