Drones and soil sampling: New strategies for fighting forest fires – Knowledge

“Moderately warm and dry air determine the weather in Brandenburg and Berlin,” the German Weather Service (DWD) announced in its forecast on Monday. On Tuesday night the weather will be partly cloudy and without precipitation. It’s dry in Brandenburg, very dry for the time of year. For the southern half of the federal state, the risk of forest fires is already classified as “high”.

A new European research association will now develop a fire management system to prevent large forest fires. Because conditions are changing with climate change, the risk of forest fires is likely to be more frequent and longer, as it was last year.

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Appropriate extinguishing media and extinguishing agents

The EU Climate Change Agency “Copernicus” calls the summer of 2021 the hottest in Europe since the census began. In July and August about 800,000 hectares of forests and shrubs were burned in the Mediterranean region. This corresponds to half of the Schleswig-Holstein area. Brandenburg, with its large pine forests, low rainfall and light sandy soil, is the country with the highest risk of forest fires nationwide.

“Current soil saturation is a key factor,” says Anja Hofmann-Böllinghaus of the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) in Berlin. The drier the soil, the higher the risk of fire breaking out and spreading. The fire engineer is a project manager at BAM, one of 46 European partners in the fire management system research association, which is funded for three and a half years with 23m euros from the EU’s Horizon program.

“The soil varies depending on the plants that are in it,” explains Hofmann-Böllinghaus. Due to the waste, the soil from the oak forest behaves differently from the soil from the pine forest or a mixed forest. The leaves and needles of different types of trees have very different levels of flammability. Needles, with their high percentage of essential oils, burn particularly well.

“The specific flammability of the soil under certain tree species largely determines how quickly a forest fire can spread,” says Hofmann-Böllinghaus. Also, soil condition is an important indicator for suitable extinguishing measures and extinguishing agents.

Fresh forest, warm city

Fires have increased worldwide in recent decades. The globally affected area has shrunk. However, this is mainly due to the reduction of fires in grassy and savannah areas, which together make up the bulk of the fire affected areas. Forest areas continue to be affected frequently, also due to climate change. Fires in Australia, the US West Coast and Siberia are examples.

Fires further fuel the climate crisis as they release massive amounts of carbon dioxide. “Intact forests bind carbon dioxide to a large extent and contribute to cooling through their indoor climate,” explains Hofmann-Böllinghaus. Pierre Ibisch from the University of Sustainable Development in Eberswalde also emphasizes the cooling function: “The forest of the future will store as much water as possible in dead soil, trees and wood and will cool down.”

Extensive dense forests managed to significantly cool entire landscapes. In big cities like Berlin, the temperature in summer can be more than 12 degrees Celsius higher than in nearby forest areas.

The results of the fire management project should help to maintain this cooling function, detect fires as soon as possible, limit them and, ideally, prevent them entirely through preventative measures. Modern methods are combined for this purpose. Firefighters are trained using virtual reality. Artificial intelligence and self-learning systems are used for simulations that predict the spread of fires. Drones monitor fire-prone forests.

According to Hofmann-Böllinghaus, it can be imagined that drones will also be equipped with gas metering devices so that they can better assess the risk situation for nearby settlements and emergency services. In addition, data from about 40 Copernicus satellites provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) are included.

Knowledge of fire management

“We want to use the factors of current drought, vegetation and temperature to draw conclusions about the risk of forest fires,” says Hofmann-Böllinghaus. The investigation of soil samples at BAM aims to provide information on the different fire dynamics of pine and oak, for example, which significantly determine the appropriate extinguishing tactics. Depending on the dynamics of the fire, emergency services may place barriers along certain lines, which are particularly effective in the event of ground fires, or dig corridors and fill them with water – at least if available at forest.

The relatively short duration of the project indicates how much time is essential. “With the fire management system, we want to give knowledge and effective tools to everyone involved in forest fire prevention, but also emergency services from the fire brigade or civil defense,” says Hofmann-Böllinghaus.

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