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Tech experts turn firefighters in battle against wildfires


A wildfire rages in Killarney National Park. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan

A wildfire rages in Killarney National Park. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan

A wildfire rages in Killarney National Park. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan

Emergency services have hailed as a “game-changer” ground-breaking new technology developed in Ireland for fighting wildfires.

The system, devised by a team at Maynooth University and the Air Corps, will give firefighters instant access to a wealth of real-time information they say is vital to help them respond effectively.

“At times emergency services have to rely on WhatsApp photographs and verbal descriptions to try to get a picture of what’s happening in a fire,” said Air Corps helicopter pilot, Commandant Jay O’Reilly.

“Or we might see on a map that there’s a lake where we can use the bucket to collect water but when we get there, the level is too low.

“We just don’t have all the information we need and we can’t get it quickly enough.

“This is going to be an absolute game-changer for us in terms of how we do firefighting. And not just for us but for emergency services across the world.”

The system, called CoPilot AI, gathers information from databases run by scientific bodies with up to date information on weather, humidity, terrain type, vegetation growth and moisture content, water source levels and much more.

“It combines that with satellite imagery, drone footage, helicopter visuals and LIDAR (remote sensing technology), condenses all the information and presents it in an app on your phone or other mobile device,” explained Professor Tim McCarthy of the National Geocomputation Centre at Maynooth University.

“It understands how fire moves on different gradients and how it reacts to different fuel – the type of vegetation cover – and it can predict how the fireline will move.

“Most importantly, it communicates all this quickly and clearly. At the moment you have a chief fire officer who might be taking calls from his or her own firefighters, the Air Corps, gardaí, the Civil Defence, Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

“They’re all out there seeing the fire from one viewpoint and trying to fight it with limited information. This puts everyone in the picture so better decisions can be made where to move resources.”

Aidan Dempsey, Chief Fire Officer for Co Wicklow, is all too familiar with wildfires and is impressed with the system’s trial runs.

“With a road traffic accident or a building on fire, we have a contained area and can maintain a line of sight,” he said.

“It’s much more difficult with wildfires. You’re dealing with much larger areas and you can’t see enough to get a good overview.

“This will enhance the safety of firefighters and the public by giving us the ability to monitor their location day and night. It will spot livestock too.”

The system has been given a €1m grant from Science Foundation Ireland to take it to the next stage where it moves from its university tech expert handlers to a form that emergency services can operate themselves.

“It’s a big investment but the cost of dealing with incidents like wildfires is very high,” Prof McCarthy said.

“it can cost up to €2,500 per hectare to suppress a wildfire and we’re seeing thousands of hectares burned every year.

“You also have anything upwards of five tonnes of carbon emissions per hectare burned.

“We’re lucky here in that wildfires tend not to cost lives but we’ve seen in the Mediterranean with the very high temperatures that are becoming more common with climate change how drought and dry vegetation can be deadly.”

Comdt O’Reilly said the Air Corps was also becoming more concerned about the impact of climate change.

“In 2018 during the Beast from the East, I was snowed in at Baldonnel. The same week in 2019 I was fighting wildfires.

“We’re seeing more extreme conditions and while firefighting is not our core function, we’re being called out to wildfires more often every year.”

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