Creating cutting-edge tools for the active prevention of forest fires

A model that incorporates fire risk in forest management planning to avoid economic and human loss

There are between 6,000 and 7,000 forest fires each year in Chile, 99.7% of which are caused by human activities, with an average of 52,000 hectares burned annually, between bush, meadow, and forest plantations. Work in ongoing at the Complex Engineering Systems Institute on the development of crop planning models that integrate economic aspects and environmental protection, with the creation of firewalls that delay the spread of fires in an active, efficient, and sustained manner.

Fire is one of the main threats to forests, especially in climates with a marked seasonality such as the Mediterranean climate so characteristic of the central south zone of Chile. In a situation of prolonged drought, the risk in the area increases considerably as a result of the heat and the increase of winds coming from the south.

Fires are viewed by the public as a serious environmental problem. They heavily impact soil and air quality, the water cycle is altered, and all these factors affect an area’s flora and fauna. Serious social problems are generated in the affected communities, while plantation forest owners see it as a serious economic problem.

Working alongside scientists from the United States, Canada, and Spain, a team of ISCI researchers has developed state-of-the-art tools that help to prevent the spread of fire by including new active prevention strategies in industrial planning, applied in optimal places to reduce the risk of fire spreading.

These measures include the following actions:

  • The reduction of combustible materials near infrastructure, particularly on both sides of roads and highways and in the forest/urban area interface.
  • The management of forest stands, reducing the number of trees, pruning the low branches, and cleaning any combustible materials such as weeds and shrubs in areas where a higher probability of fire exists.
  • The creation of firebreak areas through the design of a forest mosaic that creates spatial discontinuities, both in fuels and in the spread and impact of fire, facilitating the compartmentalization of the land.

Although preventive measures imply a sacrifice in economic terms early on, this initial cost is compensated by having fewer fires and, therefore, fewer losses further down the line.

Work is also being conducted on the use and integration of fire simulators that make it possible to predict their propagation and to use this information in the preventive planning stage.

Project Director Andrés Weintraub dedicates part of his research to the development of fire prevention models in Canadian forests. He explains “Historically, successful models have been implemented to plan the availability of fire suppression elements such as helicopters or fire crews. Also, simulators have been developed that have proven effective in visualizing, given the topography, wind conditions, and other elements, as well as the direction in which the fire will spread. While extinction strategies have proven effective in reducing the impact of fires, there is a certain threshold from which point their effectiveness is limited. Moreover, there is the paradox that if the successful tackling of a blaze is not accompanied by preventive management, a large accumulation of combustible material can be generated in the forest, possibly causing subsequent forest fires. We propose to change the paradigm by putting more of an emphasis on active prevention policies, and only then on the methods of extinguishing a fire. The use of sophisticated tools such as stochastic simulation and optimization models paves the way for the development of innovative research results worldwide.”

The design of this methodology began in Canada as a prototype. In Catalonia, Spain, an implementation is being developed together with the Forest Science and Technology Center. This international collaboration is supported by the Institute of Complex Engineering Systems and European funding. In Chile, a prototype is being developed with a view to future implementation.

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