Firehawk: detecting forest fires in South Africa
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CTA. 2004. Firehawk: detecting forest fires in South Africa. ICT Update Issue 19. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/57681
Jake Oosthuizen describes how Firehawk, an electronic forest fire detection system, has significantly improved the early detection of fires in KwaZulu Natal´s coastal zone, thus reducing the damage to the environment and the timber industry. The sys
At 6:45 a.m. on what promises to be a sweltering August day, Zululand Fire Protection Services (ZFPS) operations manager Trevor Wilson has just been alerted to a nascent fire in a pine plantation 12 kilometres away. One of his monitors shows high-resolution video images of smoke building up in the area. Trevor zooms in to take a closer look and, with the help of his computer´s software, quickly determines the exact location of the fire. Time is of the essence. He immediately dispatches aerial firefighters - bomber aircraft that will release a large load of flame-retardant water above the area in order to smother the fire and prevent it from spreading. Within 30 minutes the situation is under control again. Trevor works at the Kwambonambi Operations Centre, the main firefighting command post in KwaZulu Natal´s coastal zone. The area, which covers 88,000 hectares of timber, is one of the focal points of the South African forestry industry. ZFPS, a commercial enterprise, is responsible for protecting this vast fire-prone area. Only a few years ago ZFPS firefighters were almost helpless against fires that could be fanned by winds raging at 100 kilometres per hour with flames shooting 50 to 100 metres into the sky. By the time ground crews stationed in lookout towers reported a fire it was usually already too late. To complicate matters, they were often unable to identify the exact location of the fire and thus the closest access roads. ZFPS management realized that to prevent such catastrophes they needed a surveillance system that could detect a fire as soon as it starts. They introduced Firehawk, an ingenious electronic forest fire detection system with a network of cameras replacing the manned lookout towers. Originally developed by Digital Imaging Systems, a South African technology company, ZFPS took ownership of Firehawk in 2001. Since then, the average area affected by fire each year has been reduced, and so has the financial cost to plantation owners. ´Now that we have the capability to detect fires more rapidly, ground crews and aerial support are able to get to the source of fires much faster,´ says Trevor. ´This has drastically limited the damage, both to the environment and the timber industry´. How Firehawk works The Firehawk system consists of a network of eleven digital video cameras mounted on masts up to 72 metres high. The cameras record live video images of their surrounding area, completing a full 360? scan in less than four minutes. Each camera covers a radius of 6 to 8 kilometres but, visibility permitting, can detect a fire up to 20 kilometres away. The live video images are transmitted via microwave antennae to the Kwambonambi Operations Centre, which can be up to 65 kilometres away. There, the images are analyzed by sophisticated Firehawk software that can distinguish between fire, smoke and glow, and automatically raises an alarm. What makes the Firehawk system so valuable is its highly interactive nature - ZFPS operators are not required to wait passively for incoming information. Each Firehawk camera is equipped with a radio receiver that allows the operator to manipulate it remotely without affecting other cameras in the system. Thus, using the video control panel, the operator can pan and tilt each camera in any direction and zoom in on any area of concern. Moreover, the Firehawk software is linked to a geographic information system (GIS) database that provides operators with additional information about the area under surveillance. For example, at the touch of a button, any fire can be cross-referenced from different cameras to determine its exact coordinates. The GIS maps are also used to identify the fastest or safest road to access the fire. Last but not least, the GIS database is continuously updated and can be used to make predictions about areas that are most at risk from fire. Firehawk´s future looks promising. The system is being extended to other South African regions as forestry companies and private plantation owners come to realize its enormous potential. The system effectively provides fire fighting forces with ´eyes´ everywhere and allows them to respond to fires more quickly and effectively than ever before. mailto:email@example.com Jake Oosthuizen is the founder of Zululand Fire Protection Services. For further information, visit http://www.zfps.co.za www.zfps.co.za.