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Could the U.S. fight forest fires with software?

Could the U.S. fight forest fires with software?

Posting in Energy

The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and loggers hope technology can help prevent catastrophic wildfires in Arizona.

In the wake of the Yarnell wildfire tragedy and in the heat of an escalating wildland fire problem across the West, an unlikely group of stakeholders is testing technology in a Northern Arizona forest that could improve forest health, bolster a small and struggling local timber industry, and reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires.

There is no shortage of debate about how the U.S. Forest Service should go about suppressing forest fires. Some say the agency's current practice of snuffing out most fires, even if they're far from human infrastructure, will end up increasing the number and intensity of large ones.

When it comes to preventive measures that reduce the fuel load inside forests, there is more accord.

Hundreds of years ago, periodic forest fires cleared out much of the brush and dead trees that can cause fires to reach epic proportions, but decades of aggressive fire suppression have interrupted these natural, destructive cycles. As a result, many forests are overgrown and full of tinder. Here's some perspective from The Nature Conservancy (TNC):

"The photo comparison below shows the effects of fire suppression. In 1875, the forest around Walker Lake north of Flagstaff, Ariz., was open with abundant grass cover. The sparse tree cover and absence of dead wood on the ground reduced the chance of a high severity fire that would kill trees. The 2003 photo shows a dense thicket of trees vulnerable to drought, disease, and the type of high severity fire that can wipe out swaths of forest and threaten communities, water supplies, and wildlife habitat."

For years, the Forest Service has struggled to keep up with a backlog of thinning and prescriptive burn projects that would reduce the chances of large, highly destructive and dangerous fires across the increasingly arid West, where climate change is only exacerbating the problem. A big part of the problem is financial. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell says fire suppression claims nearly half of the agency's yearly budget. Each year, however, more resources are dedicated to fighting fires, and fewer are put toward preventing them.

It feels like a losing battle. But a pilot project made possible by a collaboration between TNC, the Forest Service's Technology and Development arm and two Arizona timber companies is testing whether technology can help turn this tide.

"The largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest in the world extends from northern Arizona to central New Mexico, and we've lost a quarter of that, a million acres, to fire in the past decade," says Pat Graham, Arizona state director for TNC. "We're looking for a solution that can scale to the size of the problem. We're no longer able to use small ideas."

Currently, Forest Service employees hike through these pine forests and manually mark trees that should remain, so logging companies know which they can take. The goal is to remove small-diameter trees and allow space between larger pines. With the TimberGuide software, which runs on a tablet computer mounted inside a wood harvester, a prescriptive thinning plan can be uploaded and used to guide harvester operators through the cutting process without anyone having to manually mark trees. This translates into more thinned forests, less labor and likely more profits for timber companies.

TimberGuide screenshot shows each day's harvest, color coded.

That's the vision, anyway. Today, TimberGuide only collects the location of each tree the harvester takes, and then shows the location on a map, color-coded by day. This means the Forest Service still must mark trees to be removed. By next summer, though, upgrades will allow the software to upload thinning prescription plans that guide harvesters through forests, quickly and efficiently removing appropriately sized and located trees, Graham says.

Harvesting small-diameter trees is not a lucrative business, says Ken Ribelin, who runs High Desert Investment, one of the two logging companies involved in the pilot test. With the closest mill 180 miles away, it's too costly to do much with the harvested timber except sell it as firewood in grocery stores, and rising fuel costs are shaving his already thin margins. But Ribelin is hopeful TimberGuide might help his operation run more efficiently. The second logging company that will be likely to test the technology is W.B. Contracting, is part of Future Forest LLC, a collaboration working specifically on reviving a logging industry in Arizona while also thinning forests for wildfire resiliency.

Neil Chapman, northern Arizona program restoration manager for TNC, says the data already being collected -- which maps the number and location of each trees removed -- can be cross-referenced with weather or other records to highlight inefficiencies. "If it was rainy and things were sloppy and everyone was moving slowly" and the harvest was low, "maybe on days like that they shouldn't even start up the machines," Chapman says. "Or they might find days when a mix of optimal conditions meant they finished really quickly, and [they] made a boatload of money."

Photos: (Top) TNC's Hart Prairie Preserve in Ariz., by Mark Skalny; Walker Lake photos, 1875, by John Hillers, 2003, by Neil Weintraub; TimberGuide screenshot, TNC

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure