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Preventing Controlled Burns from Igniting Wildfires

An opportunity to use Siri.

Artificial intelligence is the hot topic in technology today. We will be hearing much more about how AI can be used in a variety of situations. One of those is to use AI to assist in not having a controlled burn get out of control. How many times have we heard about such a event happening. When seeking to prevent a major wildfire, a control burn actually causes one. See this story from NPR:

AI has become a tool in the search for climate solutions

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST: All sorts of companies and researchers have embraced artificial intelligence, and that includes people working on climate solutions. Julia Simon from NPR's Climate Desk is here to explain how AI is being used to tackle global warming. Hi, Julia.


SUMMERS: So Julia, climate change means more wildfires, and I understand that there are some companies and researchers who think AI might be able to help out with that?

SIMON: Yes. One way researchers hope AI can help prevent big wildfires is with something called controlled burns. That's when Native tribes, people from the Forest Service, utilities set controlled fires to remove excess brush vegetation - basically removing fuel for megafires.

SUMMERS: OK. But, of course, if you do not plan out that controlled fire correctly, it seems like something that could spin out of control, right?

SIMON: Exactly. Teams of so-called burn managers, they need lots of data to keep those fires safe. They need to know about the wind, the moisture in the vegetation, how much vegetation. Yolanda Gil is director of strategic AI at the Information Science Institute at USC. To help prevent controlled burns from getting out of control, they're working on an AI-powered tool.

YOLANDA GIL: These are intelligent assistants. It's kind of like Siri, but for burn managers.

SUMMERS: Huh, OK. Intelligent assistants are like Apple's Siri or, I take it, Amazon's Alexa. Help me understand this. What would Siri for burn managers look like?

SIMON: Yeah. Well, Siri uses AI, right? When I ask it a question, it combs through a bunch of data, feeds me back an answer. Gil and their team are making a Siri-like assistant for those people making controlled fires. It works like this. GIL: The burn manager will say, what model would be good? I want to do a controlled fire in this particular area.

SIMON: The Siri-like system would then figure out the weather patterns for that area, the topography, vegetation and come back and say, here's a potential burn model, a way to make a controlled fire that's safe. Gil says the hope is that by giving AI-powered assistance to more agencies, utilities, they can make lots more safe, controlled burns.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.