New strategies to fight Europe's growing wildfire risk

The EU-funded AF3 project has developed advanced detection and prediction software, as well as new blaze-fighting technologies aimed at saving lives and limiting destruction caused by forest fires.

Theme: Agriculture & food,Environment, Land management, Natural disasters 
Framework programme: Seventh Framework Programme 
Countries involved in the project: Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom

Wildfires can be deadly and cause massive and costly devastation. That was on clear display in Europe during the summer of 2018, which was marked by a widespread, intense heatwave that saw serious forest fires breaking out in countries from Greece and Portugal in the south, to Sweden in the north. As climate change takes hold and land use changes continue, the force and frequency of such destructive fires is expected to rise – a situation already experienced across the Mediterranean region.

Helping to potentially save lives and support teams of firefighters, the EU-funded AF3 project has developed new flame-extinction technology and an advanced software system to assist in planning the management of wildfires. The concepts allow firefighters to attack flames in the best possible way from the ground and the air, to better understand a blaze’s behaviour and growth patterns, and to detect an outbreak as early as possible.

‘Mega-fires are particularly destructive and difficult to control, and there are a growing number of them,’ says AF3 project coordinator Stefano Scafè of Italian high-tech company Leonardo. ‘Climate change, urbanisation, poor land-use management and the deliberate starting of fires are key drivers of risk. AF3 aims to improve the efficiency of current firefighting to protect human lives, the environment and property.’

Special fire-fighting pellets
One of the technologies developed by the project involves pellets – or bags about 40 cm in length containing water or fire retardants in liquid form – that can be dropped safely by airplanes and helicopters from high altitudes in precise locations. The pellets are designed to be dropped in any weather condition, by day or night, and on any type of terrain.

AF3 researchers successfully tested the concept on real fire with drops carried out by Canadair during project trials in Greece.

The project also developed fire-fighting capsules, small tanks containing fire retardants that can easily be transported and located in high-risk areas before a fire front arrives. They are equipped with temperature-sensor technology that will automatically activate and spray out the liquid once very high temperatures are detected. When a blaze breaks out, the capsules can be quickly placed in vulnerable zones. For example, the capsules could be used to create a blaze barrier on the edge of a forest to prevent a fire spreading into a residential area.

Effective fire-tracking
In addition to the new technology, AF3 scientists developed a fire-tracking system that receives data from sensors in satellites, aircraft, vehicles, as well as mobile and personal devices. It analyses the information and simulates any fire outbreaks using real-time information that then informs the fire-fighting team’s strategies. By monitoring smoke and toxic clouds, the system also helps to detect blazes as early as possible.

Using satellite radar imaging, the software takes into account the characteristics of the terrain or the vegetation and other materials that would feed a fire, moisture levels determining how quickly a fire may extinguish itself and typical meteorological conditions including local wind speeds and heights, precipitation rates, and solar radiation.

For Scafè, an important next step would be to produce Europe-wide fire maps.

The fire-fighting capsules and pellets, together with the system developed by AF3 for automatically dispensing them – called Advanced Aerial Fire Fighting (AAFF) – will soon be available on the market. The project’s sensors, devices and software will be further developed before being commercialised.

Project details

  • Project acronym: AF3
  • Participants: Italy (Coordinator), Israel, UK, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Sweden, France
  • Project N°: 607276
  • Total costs: € 19 270 384
  • EU contribution: € 12 985 486
  • Duration: May 2014 to July 2017

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