The type of emergency operations to extinguish fires can vary enormously but in terms of frequency, operations tend to peak during the summer. Despite the rapid response of these operations, even smaller forest fires can evolve into major fires due to adverse weather conditions in high-risk areas.
High-intensity propagation fires can last for several days and pose a threat to people, goods and ecosystems. They also require a wide range of terrestrial and aerial fire extinguishing methods, co-ordinated in complex operations. These operations involve professionals from different fields such as firefighters, forest checkpoint personnel, police, forest agents, pilots and military personnel, as well as a range of technologies such as off-road machinery, heavy machinery, heavy road vehicles, 4x4 light vehicles, manual tools, planes, drones, communication systems and geolocation systems. Major fires demand correspondingly large-scale innovation.
Aeroplanes, helicopters, drones, balloons or airships are the focus of much innovation for extinguishing forest fires. Drones are particularly well-suited to the task, as they can access remote and hard-to-reach areas where fires may occur. Furthermore, they do not put the lives of pilots at risk, as they are controlled remotely. They can also be equipped with various sensors, cameras and extinguishing agents to detect, monitor and suppress fires.
Firefighting aircraft are normally fixed-wing aircraft equipped with large extinguishing tanks that can be filled on the ground. Aircraft with amphibious capabilities can land directly on the surface of the sea or of lakes and fill their tanks without the aid of other equipment. Aeroplanes are particularly suited to flat areas, and areas where there is limited or no access to water, as they can typically fly for longer distances and at greater speed.
Helicopters may be fitted with tanks, outfitted with a front-mounted foam cannon or carry buckets. Buckets are usually filled by dipping them in lakes, rivers, reservoirs or portable tanks. Tanks can be filled on the ground or water can be siphoned from lakes, rivers or reservoirs. Helicopters have the advantage of being able to fly close to mountainous areas and in other areas with challenging topography. However, wind may limit their use.
Drones / unmanned air vehicles (UAVs)
Firefighting drones can be equipped with dry powder fire extinguishers, fire extinguishing bombs and rescue equipment. They can also be equipped with optical or infrared cameras, laser ranging and obstacle avoidance systems. These smart systems can ensure accurate launch and obstacle avoidance to optimise drone/UAV effectiveness and rapidity.
Airships, balloons, blimps
Airships, balloons and blimps can be used to release fire suppression agents or, for example, to support equipment while in the air, such as hoses. They are more sensitive to wind and updrafts than other aircraft, but have the advantage they can stay in air very long.
Automotive technologies (fire trucks)
Automotive technologies focus on manned vehicles or robots, tracked chassis for hilly terrain, thermal protection cabins and devices assembled on or coupled with chassis for the storage of water, dirt, fire extinguishing agents or water or high-pressured compressed air hoses. They can also be equipped with various sensors, cameras and extinguishing agents to detect, monitor or suppress fires as required.
Long reach technologies use missiles or rockets to remotely launch fire-extinguishing agents and avoid direct exposure to fire. These technologies are designed to target and suppress fires in hard-to-reach areas, such as steep terrains. Compressed air launcher, rocket or parachute-based systems can launch water or fire retardant bombs.
In-situ extinguishing systems are devices and hydraulic infrastructures installed in forests before a fire occurs, with a view to detecting and suppressing fires. These systems include devices such as sensors, cameras and fire extinguishing agents that are activated when certain conditions are met, such as an increase in temperature or the detection of smoke. Hydraulic infrastructures include various systems that store, distribute and deliver water. They range from systems to prevent lakes freezing in winter, systems to determine suitable locations to collect rainwater or reservoirs in high-altitude mountainous regions.
Real-time monitoring of forest fires
Monitoring can be conducted by drones that transmit real-time images and information about the state of a forest fire to a control centre. This enables fire extinguishing operations to be managed according to the temperatures or wind conditions detected. Other systems use satellite images and weather information to determine the probable evolution of the fire.
While water is the most-used compound in fire extinguishing, due to its ability to cool, suffocate, and interrupt the combustion reaction of pyrolysis gases, inorganic compounds such as phosphorus and nitrogen salts are also commonly used as flame retardants. However, they can damage the environment through processes such as eutrophication if they are applied near watercourses.
Transportable hydraulic infrastructures
Transportable hydraulic infrastructures include pipelines, hoses and other transportable hydraulic equipment that are brought into an area affected by fire. These differ from hydraulic infrastructures, which are already installed in forests.
Manually carriable extinguishing equipment
These devices range from backpacks with extinguishing agents or compressed air, to devices that collect soil dirt and throw it at the fire. They can also include dry ice devices that expel CO2 to displace oxygen. Other portable devices are based on detachable barriers made of materials resistant to thermal radiation.
Non-extinguisher hand tools
Apart from extinguishing equipment, firefighters dealing with wildfires may also carry other tools useful for combatting fire or preventing it from spreading further, such as shovels and rake- or broom-like equipment to move ignitable material. Ignition devices can also be used to start a controlled fire that deprives a larger fire from combustible material.