Sometimes magical things happen, but the pace of change must increase

The October issue of Emergency Services Times contains a feature on wildfires where Professor Guillermo Rein, an academic from Imperial College London specialising in fire science, talks to Catherine Levin about why they happen and how best to respond to them based on his international research on the topic.

We start off by talking about the National Risk Register and the relatively recent inclusion of wildfire as a risk – one of 89 in the current edition. He says that wildfires are not a new risk but with the recent growth in both the number of wildfires and expansion in areas where they can be found, more resource needs to be found.

I ask him whether fire and rescue services consult research coming out of academic institutions like his to develop new evidence-based approaches to respond to wildfires. Admitting that reading research papers is not always that easy for non-academics, he says it works best for him when services come to him with a problem. He enjoys the circularity of finding out the problems, seeing how the conversation iterates and evolves ways that services are responding and how it emerges in other settings later in time. He worries that change takes too long, is too random and too dependent on individuals with a passion. “Although sometimes magical things happen,” he adds with a smile.

The pace of climate change

“You only have to look inside the covers of newspapers to see that this summer is bad. It is so bad in terms of the wildfires we have seen across the globe, that I just want to cry. If the rate of interaction between scientists and fire and rescue services remains this slow when the extent of wildfires is increasing at an unprecedented rate; when I look into the future, I worry.”

What is the answer to speed things up? He says it’s a good question but he’s not sure he has the answer. He looks to political leadership for the direction and vision to make changes now. He wants to see a focus on prevention, awareness and education to influence behaviour change, but he doesn’t see it.

He refers to Australia and what he calls its open minded and progressive approach to wildfire mitigation and response (see Carl Halewood’s report on his visit to Australia on page 22 of the current issue for inspiration). He also points at the US despite the devastation we’ve seen in Maui in recent weeks. “Hawaii and California are in serious trouble. It’s not because they aren’t trying, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough to deal with the massive problem that was growing in front of them.”

He is clear that the increase in number of wildfires is related to climate change but it is not the only reason. He cites the example of poor management of forests, where the increasingly dry fuel load is combined with excessive heat and wind. “Then the fires cannot be stopped,” he warns.

Using technology to better understand risk

I ask Guillermo about the UK Fire Danger Rating System to find out what role it plays in understanding wildfire risk to help organisations plan, mitigate and respond. He says the origin is scientific, “But the problem is that it was designed in Canada for Canada. The UK uses it because there is no alternative. It needs to be improved but attempts so far have failed.” He says that there is work going on in one of the academic research councils to improve the existing system because, “It under predicts and over predicts risk so it cannot be relied upon. It’s not good enough to be used by fire and rescue services.”

I had heard about Google developing an AI wildfire tracking system and Guillermo confirmed that he has spoken to the company about this work. He explains, “Google realised that the current position is a mess. They are using a different approach, talking to top scientists in California and developing their own method to detect, track and forecast wildfires. They are doing this for free, to give the capability to society.”

He talks the language of hazards and controls and how a free to use tool from Google could provide the data to give public authorities and others the ability to plan, mitigate and respond using ‘what if’ scenarios. He says that AI is good for solving intractable problems where there is extensive data ‘to extract meaning’ and Google of course has extensive data to work with. He says the company does not seem to be in a hurry to expand this work.

Given what we talked about earlier, the pace of thinking needs to speed up to match the faster pace of the growing extent of wildfires. He agrees but adds caution. “Google is faster than the fire and rescue services but it is doing something to fill a vacuum where public authorities are not providing the leadership that the problem requires.” He’s keen on the approach that puts the tools into the hands of consumers but says that these are ‘rough’ for now.

Leadership to drive change

“My worry is the short memory of society,” he says with great concern. “Here in London, we are forgetting about what happened last summer as we turn our gaze to the wildfires in the US and Canada. Since then, I can see that the worry has receded.” We react, then we forget, but what we need is a constant and leadership, he adds. He’s a pragmatist and recognises that other priorities emerge, but if change doesn’t take place when the wildfire problem is not acute, then when will it get the attention it needs?

My conclusion after my time with Guillermo is that wildfires aren’t just a fire and rescue service problem, they are everyone’s problem but without ownership by those who can influence change, the problem will simply remain until the next crisis prompts a response. I hope that someone in the Home Office is reading this and will reach out to Guillermo to expand on this discussion and break the cycle of reacting and forgetting. Climate change isn’t going away and we cannot remain bystanders as we watch the earth continue to heat up and create the perfect climate for more wildfires.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.