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Thanks to climate change, many regions are experiencing longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons. Here are 4 high-tech ways we are trying to stop these fires in there tracks, as well as one that’s a bit simpler.

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Wildfires -- sometimes called bushfires -- are uncontrolled fires that burn through vegetation in areas like forests and grasslands. And they’re a perfectly natural part of many ecosystems.

Many forests actually need wildfires to survive -- they add important nutrients back into the soil, and they can be required for seed germination and growth. Unfortunately, thanks to climate change, land use, and other factors, many regions are experiencing longer, more dangerous wildfire seasons, with longer-lasting, more frequent blazes. So researchers are working hard to fight wildfires, both as they rage and before they start, with the power of technology.

Here are four super high-tech ways we’re trying to stop wildfires in their tracks. And one that’s... a bit simpler. One way tech can help us tackle wildfires is by improving existing firefighting technologies.

In the case of chemical flame retardants, that means making them... stickier. Right now, firefighters use more than 100 million gallons of chemical flame retardants—like ammonium polyphosphate, or APP—to extinguish out-of-control blazes each year. Firefighters apply APP to vegetation that’s in the way of an advancing wildfire, often by dropping it out of specially-equipped planes.

The APP adheres to plants and creates a protective chemical coating. As the APP burns, it releases water vapor, which helps extinguish the flames. It also leaves behind a black, fire-resistant charcoal residue that protects the vegetation from burning.

So while it might look like a fire has burned APP-treated plants to a crisp, it actually hasn’t. The goal of APP is to prevent wildfires from consuming the fuel they need to keep growing… because when there’s no more fuel, there’s no more fire. So if APP can put out a wildfire, what’s the big problem?

Well, while it does work, it’s most effective at minimizing the damage from fires that have already broken out. That’s because APP is water soluble and can be washed off of plants easily. High winds can blow it off, too.

So while APP is a great tool for fighting fires, it’s not realistic to use it for season-long fire prevention. But scientists are working to change that by combining APP with viscoelastic fluids. A viscoelastic fluid is unique because it can behave both like an elastic solid and a viscous liquid.

In other words, a viscoelastic fluid is both stretchy and sticky, kind of like bread dough. In a 2019 study, scientists at Stanford University announced that they had developed a type of viscoelastic fluid that combines plant-derived cellulose with colloidal silica particles. The result is what its inventors have dubbed “molecular velcro,” thanks to its ability to stick to plants way better than APP alone.

When you mix this viscoelastic fluid with APP, 50% more fire retardant sticks to vegetation, and it can stay put even after a half inch of rainfall. In fact, in the researchers’ tests, grass treated with this mixture just… wouldn’t catch on fire. And even better: they think it’s environmentally safe enough to leave on plants long-term.

They hope this new viscoelastic fluid will one day let firefighters protect vulnerable areas -- like steep inclines, roadways, and man-made structures -- before wildfires ever break out. Next up… drones! Drones are the poster child for flashy tech.

And they’re helping fight fires too -- in more ways than you might expect. Because drones are remotely operated, they’re able to fly into dangerous areas where it’s not safe for people or even aircraft to travel. But scientists are also developing drones that can fight fire with fire… literally.

Lighting a fire to fight a fire is called a backfire. To do that, firefighters first create a containment line in front of a wildfire to keep it from moving past a certain point. Containment lines can be a naturally occurring barrier, like a river.

Often, though, they’re artificial trenches. Then, you have to light the backfire. Which is where the flashy tech comes in.

Drones equipped with a system called IGNIS can swoop in and set a new fire on the wildfire side of the containment line. The backfire consumes fuel that is in the path of the original wildfire, and because fires need fuel to burn, the backfire prevents the wildfire from spreading. The IGNIS-equipped drones light backfires by dropping spheres the size of ping pong balls, called Dragon Egg spheres, wherever firefighters want the new fires to start.

The Dragon Eggs are injected with a chemical called glycol right before they’re released from the drone, which causes a chemical reaction that ignites 30 seconds after the Dragon Egg is released. That ensures that the Dragon Eggs catch fire after they’ve reached the ground. The IGNIS system typically carries around 400 Dragon Egg spheres, and it can drop them at a rate of up to 120 spheres per minute.

That lets one IGNIS-equipped drone ignite several hundred hectares of land every hour, which helps firefighters start a backfire quickly and safely. These fire-starting drones can also set controlled burns, which firefighters and foresters use to safely remove accumulated leaves, limbs, grass, and debris that can fuel dangerous wildfires. And, drones can even help restore burned areas.

Drones fitted with seed distribution systems can help reseed deforested areas far away from people, which can help forests recover from fires faster. Researchers have developed drones that are specifically designed to help replant wildfire-ravaged areas quickly and efficiently. First, one set of drones creates a 3D map of an area, and once that’s done, the seeding drones get to work.

Each drone can carry about 26 kilograms of seed vessels, which are small cubes containing a mixture of soil, fertilizer, and tree seeds. The drones then drop the seed vessels over the fire-ravaged area. Right now, each drone can plant about one third of a hectare each flight, and a full swarm of five drones can plant about 16 hectares a day.

That means a single drone swarm could replant an area the size of New York’s Central Park in just three weeks. So, sorry, Johnny Appleseed… it looks like you might have been replaced. Artificial intelligence is also adding some seriously high-tech juice to our wildfire-prevention kit.

For instance, in a 2017 paper, one group of scientists proposed an AI technology, called Particle Swarm Optimized Neural Fuzzy, or PSO-NF. Now, while that name might tell computer scientists everything they need to know, for the rest of us, that basically means that the AI calculates an environment's susceptibility to wildfires -- specifically, a tropical forest. It does this by taking important environmental data points like land use, elevation, temperature, rainfall, and wind speed.

Then, it builds a Geographic Information System, or GIS, database. A GIS database compiles, stores, and analyzes all sorts of geographical data, like surface elevation, vegetation types and densities, and even the location of man-made structures like buildings and streets. Once researchers build a GIS database of a specific area, the PSO-NF AI can then analyze the data and look for patterns, which allow it to predict when and where wildfires could break out.

A tech company in California is developing AI technology that detects wildfires as soon as they start. To do this, an AI program analyzes satellite images to monitor fire-prone areas. The AI searches for wildfire signs that are invisible to the naked eye, like temperature spikes, smoke, or hotspots.

Once the AI spots the warning signs of a fire, it alerts the authorities so they can respond before the blaze grows out of control. Eventually, this technology will be able to scan California’s 33 million acres of forest every 10 minutes as a first line of defense against potentially devastating wildfires. So AI can help us predict wildfires and spot them as soon as they start -- or even before.

But what about when they’re already burning out of control? Another group of scientists at the University of California. San Diego have developed an AI technology called Firemap that’s helping firefighters predict the path of a wildfire in real time.

Firemap uses satellite imaging to get a better understanding of the development, terrain, and even vegetation of an area, which it uses to calculate how a fire might move through that specific location. It also connects to hundreds of remote weather stations so it can include pertinent weather data, like wind speed and wind direction, into its calculations. The program then uses the data to create a model that can predict the movement of an active blaze.

That way, firefighters can deploy emergency workers and supplies to where they’re needed most. But even with all of these remote technologies, fighting wildfires still requires sending lots of people into pretty dangerous situations. The unpredictability of wildfires makes them especially dangerous for firefighters, since conditions can go from safe to deadly within minutes.

But we might be able to help them do their jobs and stay safe through the use of augmented reality. Being able to see through smoke, for example, would be a huge deal. A new augmented reality technology called C-Thru gives firefighters a heads-up display inside their facemasks.

The C-Thru system uses a thermal camera to map the terrain in front of a firefighter in real time, even in the smokiest conditions. An on-board computer then turns the data into outlines of the surrounding area and anybody within it, which is then sent to the mask’s display. So even if it’s dark, smokey, or both, they can hopefully see well enough to make it back to safety.

This AR technology is actually being developed for structural fires, like burning buildings, but it’s being adapted for fighting wildfires, too. But not all solutions have to be high-tech -- sometimes going old-school is best. And this one’s really old school.

It’s the small but mighty... goat. One of the best ways to prevent wildfires from getting out of control is to limit the amount of fuel the fires have -- stuff like fallen leaves, grasses, and other underbrush. But it can be hard for humans to clear out vegetation in areas with rough terrain or steep inclines.

That’s why some states have turned to goats to keep wildfire fuel to a minimum. Goats are tiny, efficient mulchers that can chew through underbrush in places that weed whackers and mowers can’t reach. In fact, one goat can eat up to four and a half pounds of vegetation a day… making them fuzzy, adorable vegetation decimators.

And as an added bonus, the goats leave behind some pretty great fertilizer too. So while goats can’t fly over wildfires or predict where one will crop up next, they can provide an eco-friendly, low-cost, highly cute option for keeping wildfire-feeding vegetation under control. Unfortunately, many of these technologies are still in development and not ready for widespread use.

And even if they were widely available, they don’t address the real underlying causes of wildfires: things like climate change and poor land management. But until we can bring those structural issues under control, we’ll at least have help from fire-starting drones and hungry goats. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, which was brought to you with the help of our patrons.

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