Outsmarting Mother Nature – fighting wildfires with AI

By | 3 minute read | June 20, 2019

Firefighters walking past flames on the side of a hill. There are a lot of flames and smoke coming from the fire

Summer is just around the corner.

Longer days. Surf and sun. Family barbecues. Smoke-filled horizons. Ash falling from the sky. Road closures. Emergency evacuations. Lives lost. Tragedy.

Alongside the fun that every summer brings is a nonstop torrent of news reports cataloging wildfires across the globe. We stare, transfixed, at screens capturing the heroic efforts of firefighters as they struggle to rein in nature and protect lives.

We read newspapers that catalog the devastation, transforming names and insurance estimates into letters and numbers that fail to capture the heartache and emptiness experienced by victims.


The tragedy of numbers

Over the past few years Vasco Correia, Chief Business Officer for the Bee2FireDetecion project at IBM Business Partner Compta Emerging Business, has become a reluctant expert about the global devastation that these wildfires can cause.

“I have all sorts of facts,” he offers. “Every year, we spend more than 72 billion euros on fire prevention and firefighting, but still 40 million hectares of forest will burn.” And unfortunately, these figures are likely only going to increase in the future.

“Global climate change is a big part of it,” he continues. “Climate change is always on the agenda for any discussions on wildfires. They’re happening 400 percent more than they did in the early ‘70s, and they’re growing larger and more devastating – burning six times more land and lasting five times longer.”

And the threat posed by wildfires are particularly poignant for Correia and the folks at Compta’s Bee2FireDetection project.

“Our home country, Portugal, is like the California of Europe,” Correia adds, with a bit of humor. “It’s the worst place in Europe for wildfires. The 2017 Pedrógão wildfire killed 66 people – it was so devastating in terms of casualties and to the losses for the economy and for agriculture.”

Beyond the loss of life, the June fire injured over 200 citizens and ravaged nearly 45,000 hectares of land. And later that year another series of wildfires claimed an additional 49 lives.

These tragedies reinforced Compta’s commitment to developing solutions targeted at protecting the environment and the public.


Measuring lives in minutes

Previously, the firm offered a fire detection solution that incorporated thermal cameras and optical spectrometry – the same technology, Correia points out, used by NASA to examine the chemical composition of other planets. This earlier version was patented by two members of Compta’s Bee2FireDetection team from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

“But we knew AI was coming,” Correia explains. “And we knew that if we could harness it, that would be something.”

“It’s all about the speed of detection,” he continues. “All of the studies and experts are clear – the difference between a fire that can be easily contained and a huge fire where you are only managing damage and minimizing the cost of it is 20 minutes. If firefighting measures occur in the first 20 minutes from ignition, you are likely safe.”

And for firefighters to make it to the source within that critical window, they need to be aware of the fire within a handful of minutes from its start.

Rattling off another statistic, Correia adds, “For all of the reported fires, only 3 percent are detected early.” But Compta’s new offering, Bee2FireDetection, hopes to change that.

The solution pulls in data from the Weather Company, an IBM business, tracking humidity, wind speeds and local weather to forecast fire danger levels that give users advance notice — empowering them to have firefighting crews on standby during high-risk periods. And the system can be integrated with HD cameras, including existing surveillance systems, to automatically detect smoke or other ignition signs with IBM Watson Visual Recognition technology.

And once an ignition has been identified, the platform can use the same weather data to project how the fire will likely spread over terrain and even recommend where to prioritize firefighting resources.


Software with a mission

Bringing Bee2FireDetection to market in June 2019, Correia is proud of the strides that his team at Compta has taken with this new solution – but not just because the platform was the global Watson Build winner this past year.

“We are trying to democratize wildfire detection,” clarifies Correia. “It’s available from the IBM Cloud, so it’s worldwide. And you can use the surveillance cameras you already have as long as it’s an HD camera. We’re not trying to sell you a camera. Just plug in your camera, and it becomes a smart wildfire spotter.”

“It’s software with a mission,” he concludes. “It’s not only about business. It’s about people. It’s about the environment, saving lives, making a difference worldwide for everyone. It’s the best contribution I can give to society – to be part of this team.”