Forest wildfires represent a severe hazard. As their frequency and intensity increase, their implications are becoming global. However, the pace of innovation is also increasing in areas such as fire prevention and firefighting.
The environmental, social and economic impacts of forest wildfires put hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods at risk, as well as vast swathes of biodiversity and entire ecosystems. Rising temperatures, high winds and drought, closely associated with climate change, pose new challenges to fire prevention and firefighting.
According to the Advance Report on Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa, in 2022, wildfires in the European Union alone burned more than 8 300 km2 of land, an overall area more than three times the size of Luxembourg. The report also notes 2022 as being the second worst year in Europe in terms of burnt areas and number of fires since 2006.
Innovation in fire prevention, firefighting, wildfire control and forest restoration is essential to address this challenge. Global success depends on the access to the right know how and the access to the technical information contained in patents, which describe the most recent advances and can support researchers and innovators in finding inventive solutions to address risks internationally.
This is the third Espacenet platform, following the "Fighting Coronavirus" and "Clean energy technologies" platforms. It provides some 30 ready-made search queries, combining keywords and classification. These queries enable precise navigation through over one hundred million documents in Espacenet. The platform aims to support inventors, scientists and engineers in accessing the most relevant patent information containing some of the most advanced technical knowledge on fighting wildfires. All users of firefighting innovation can benefit from this platform to find out which technologies are out there to help them.
The search queries result from the synergy of expert patent examiners and analysts from the European Patent Office (EPO), OEPM (Spain), INPI (Portugal), INPI (France), OBI (Greece) and UIBM (Italy) who have joined forces to support scientists and innovators in their endeavours.
Areas covered include:
Innovation in fighting wildfires supports progress towards the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs):
Detection and prevention technologies are used to determine the risk of fire and identify the outbreak of fire as early as possible. They are also used in the prevention or early mitigation of deflagration.
When it comes to risk management, early warning systems play a vital role. As a result, there is growing interest in researching and developing equipment and software that provides alerts.
Ten technological fields for the detection and prevention of fires are highlighted below. These technologies draw on advances in areas such as information and communication technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Patent documents can be retrieved accordingly.
AI and machine learning allow for the analysis and processing of large amounts of data from various sources, such as satellite imagery, weather forecasts and sensors. This data can be used to predict the likelihood and detect early warning signs of fire as well as identify potential hazards and monitor the spread of fire.
Data analysis and processing are vital to fire management, as well as predicting the likelihood of forest fires. Analysing data from various sources such as satellite imagery, weather forecasts and sensors makes it possible to identify potential fire hazards and the likelihood of fire occurring in a specific area. Risk analysis can also be applied to ongoing fires, for example, when it comes to predicting whether nearby residential areas, electrical power facilities or other infrastructure may be in danger.
Cameras, including infrared cameras, and other imaging means are used for the early detection of forest fires. These devices are equipped with sensors to detect the presence of fire, even before it becomes visible to the human eye.
Sensor technologies enable the early detection of fire. Sensors can be used to detect various aspects of a fire, including the presence of smoke, heat and flames. For this purpose, temperature and humidity sensors can be connected to a monitoring system which alerts authorities accordingly, potentially even before the fire becomes visible to the human eye. Every second can make a difference.
Stationary prevention platforms provide structures or barriers that prevent the spread of forest fires. They can include firebreaks, which are areas of land that have been cleared, as well as fire walls, which are physical barriers such as walls or trenches and fire-retardant barriers treated with fire-retardant chemicals.
Stationary monitoring platforms are associated with permanent non-aerial monitoring of areas to detect fires. These would typically be placed in very high risk areas to provide early warning.
Aerial technologies help detect and prevent fires by gathering and transmitting information. Aircraft and drones can be equipped with sensors and cameras to collect data on fires.
Significant advances in fire surveillance have been achieved using drones to monitor a fire and related factors in real-time, including rate of spread, temperature, wind speed and humidity. Using drones can speed up decision-making to help ensure that appropriate resources are delivered to critical areas. Furthermore, drones can be used to locate fire hotspots without the crew of piloted aircraft putting themselves at risk. Through tracking and mapping fire patterns, drones help firefighters determine where a fire could spread. They also offer high spatiotemporal resolution because they can fly low and slow.
Satellites and other space technologies provide valuable information on the location, size and spread of fires, as well as weather conditions and other factors that can influence fire behaviour. This information can be used to support fire management and suppression efforts.
Flame-retardant products aim to slow down or stop the spread of flames. Retardants are chemical compounds applied to materials, buildings or structures, to slow down or prevent the spread of fire. Retardants can be applied in the form of sprays, foams or gels, and can be used both in the pre-treatment of materials and during a fire.
Virtual reality can be incorporated into immersive training for the purposes of fire extinguishing or prevention, by simulating pre-selected parameters or providing specific scenarios in a three-dimensional fire event. This technology comprises visualisation and display equipment, methods and apparatus for generating virtual reality. It can be applied in aerial firefighting and rescue training, as well as wildfire environments. Virtual training is safe, immersive, interactive and repeatable. As a result, responses to real events may be more effective.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
There are two broad categories of protective equipment. The first includes items that protect people involved in extinguishing fires. The second category comprises equipment that safeguards structural elements in forests, such as tension towers and remote buildings.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential for people who work in fire extinguishing, especially in extreme conditions. Garments like boots, helmets and gloves are designed to protect firefighters and other first responders from the heat, flames, smoke and other hazards associated with fires. Respiratory PPE protects firefighters from inhaling smoke and chemical substances generated by fire.
Clothing for firefighters
Firefighters' clothing is highly resistant to heat transfer and mechanical aggression. It often consists of multi-layered composite materials. Smart firefighter clothing integrates temperature or body status monitoring sensors, including data transfer and other monitoring technology, which needs to be fire-resistant and function in extreme temperatures.
Fabrics for firefighters' clothes
Composite materials are continuously being developed and improved. The mostly multi-layered non-flammable fabrics need to have the requisite protection properties at the same time as being low-weight and comfortable. They can be incorporated into outer or inner layers of clothing, as well as in helmets and gloves.
Firefighters' uniforms are subject to many demands, which are often hard to reconcile. They must not only be light, strong and heat resistant from a materials perspective, but also allow free movement during dangerous activities. So they may have to be hard and protective in some places, but more flexible in others. The uniforms must be easy to put on and allow carriable equipment to be attached, integrated or stored.
Gloves need to be fire resistant, flexible, protective and have excellent grip. They may also incorporate sensors and/or some means of cooling.
Helmets need to be strong and light. However, modern helmets are also becoming more innovative and may feature equipment like lights, sensors, tracking and positioning devices, as well as eye-protection.
Respiratory protection includes devices like facial masks, glasses and visors that protect the respiratory system, as well as the eyes, from smoke, heat and other fire hazards.
Respiratory protection for firefighters fighting forest fires
These are devices and equipment specifically designed for fighting forest fires or where use in fighting forest fires is explicitly mentioned. Nevertheless, any respiratory protective equipment designed for or used by firefighters generally can also be used in a forest fire setting. The two concepts below cover such equipment.
Respiratory apparatuses for firefighters
These devices use either compressed oxygen or air, or filters, or a combination of these. They contain chemicals to produce oxygen so as to provide breathable air to firefighters. Respiratory apparatuses also feature specific components like air-cooling devices, contamination or expiration warning devices, valves or breathing or demand regulators.
Masks, respiratory filters and cartridges for firefighters
Full-face or half-masks are used by firefighters, with or without ventilation pumps as well as any of their specific component parts. Cartridges and respiratory filters can also be used in combination with masks or other respiratory protection equipment.
Examples include fire-resistant tents, blankets or tarps that can be quickly thrown over a structure (or an individual) to protect them from heat, flames and radiant heat. They also include sprinkler installations designed to provide buildings and similar structures with external protection from forest fires.
Post-fire forest restoration technology refers to the methods and techniques used to restore and rehabilitate forests and other natural areas damaged by fire. These technologies can be used in a wide range of activities.
Soil stabilisation is achieved by seeding, mulching and soil amendment to prevent erosion after a fire.
Reforestation involves planting new trees, shrubs and other vegetation to restore areas of forest lost to fire. It can also involve natural seed dispersal and other techniques to encourage the growth of new vegetation.
Habitat restoration requires removing debris and fallen trees, creating wetlands, and other techniques to restore the natural habitat of animals and plants affected by fire.