Former Engineers Ireland president Dr Chris Horn wrote an opinion piece for The Irish Times last year on how technology is used to fight wildfires both nationally and internationally ('How technology is being deployed to put out wildfires, Irish Times, August 4, 2022).
In his article he addressed the increasing use of technology in responding to these events, namely systems grounded in wireless infrastructure (eg, remote sensors, cameras and monitors), utilising mobile cellular systems and examining the potential use of satellite broadband systems.
However, there is one area that didn't get a mention: the work being carried out by engineers in various disciplines to prevent these fires occurring in the first place and the collaborative fire prevention initiatives being undertaken nationally and internationally.
Global reach of wildfires
Wildfires, once thought of as a distant problem in the USA and Australia, have now become a feature of a European summer. One of the most significant fires to occur in the last five years was the Attica fires in Mati, Greece, in 2018. These wildfires which followed the 2018 European heat wave, resulted in the deaths of 103 people and became the second-deadliest wildfire event in the 21st century, after the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires in Australia.
Last summer we have seen the destructive force of these fires in Greece, Spain, Portugal and France where wildfires have destroyed thousands of hectares of forests and led to the evacuation of several towns and villages. In July 2022, as a result of the extreme temperatures of 40°C, fire crews across London responded to 1,146 incidents in a single day, which resulted in the loss of 16 homes.
This year has already seen devastation of forests and grassland in Chile. One of the key contributors to the increase in wildfires is reduced rainfall being recorded during the winter period coupled with increased temperatures observed in the summer months. These fluctuations in traditional climate patterns are destined to continue with potentially disastrous effects for forests and the agricultural sector.
On March 1, 2023, the first wildfire alert was issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; in previous years these alerts would have been issued in mid to late-April.
In the recently published Interconnected Disaster Risks report – a science-based publication from the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations – it recognised that disasters are occurring at an ever-faster rate and that we are continuously being caught out by new extremes and new emerging threats.
The recent UNEP and GRID-Arendal report 'Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires', published in March 2022, finds that climate change and land-use change are making wildfires worse and anticipates a global increase of extreme fires even in areas previously unaffected.
As part of the organising committee of the International Safety Education Seminar, held in Dublin in March 2022, various international initiatives were showcased in educating people about wildfires and in developing strategies to build resilience in our communities.
At the seminar, the Irish-led Bfiresafe@school project, directed at second-level students, won the European Fire Safety Alliance award for developing a resource to educate students about fire safety and other key skills within the European school’s curriculum.
This ERASMUS funded programme is being rolled out to post-primary students in Ireland and in Europe to highlight simple measures they can take to understand fire, the science around it and work with online resources to enhance the learning experience.
The seminar demonstrated the importance of combining innovative digital methodologies and 'on the ground' strategies to actively engage with people, of all ages, to increase awareness and highlight simple steps to prevent the catastrophic damage caused by wildfires and flooding.
Another example of improving knowledge and awareness in the area comes from the development of the EduFire Toolkit, coordinated by the Pau Costa Foundation in Portugal. The EduFire Toolkit project, again funded through ERAMUS, has developed a set of multidisciplinary teaching resources aimed at secondary school teachers and students (12-16 years) in relation to real and local challenges related to climate change and wildfire risk reduction.
Within Irish academia, Dr Fiona Cawkwell and Emma Chalençon at the Department of Geography, University College Cork, have examined the uncontrolled wildland burning events from satellite datasets.
This project, undertaken through the EPA FLARES initiative, gathered and processed five years of data from fire services across the country to create a data set. This research was then presented as a tool to allow Irish fire and rescue professionals to risk-assess their own county and to develop plans to deal with potential incidents.
As Dr Horn correctly pointed out, the fire services internationally are just one of the players in preventing these fires occurring. Developers, planners and other professionals have their part to play in ensuring that any residential development is constructed in lands that are risk-assessed for their susceptibility to wildland fire.
Wildfire disasters last summer show just how important this topic is and will continue to be in the future. By developing preventative strategies and building partnerships between professionals and the community, it will assist in saving areas at risk and protect the communities choosing to live in them as well as minimising the potential damage to the environment.
Author: Pat Hunt joined the fire and rescue service in 1998 and in the intervening years has worked in the delivery of fire service operations and fire prevention as well as being seconded to major civil infrastructural contracts and lecturing, part-time, in AIT and UCD. A chartered fellow of Engineers Ireland, a member of the Institute of Fire Engineers and a member of the Public Sector Division of Engineers Ireland, he works as senior assistant chief fire officer with Westmeath Fire & Rescue Service dealing with fire prevention and community fire safety.