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FIRE-ENGINE (news article)

Flexible Design of Forest Fire Management Systems

Project guarantees economic, social and environmental benefits

INESC TEC is currently developing instruments as part of project FIRE-ENGINE (Designing flexible management systems for forest fires) that will help authorities prevent and suppress fires. Because Portugal is the European country that suffers the most with forest fires each year, the aim with this project is to help define solutions suited to the needs of every region, combining actions that usually function independently. The FIRE-ENGINE will be concluded in 2014 and its global budget is 600 thousand euros.

A systemic solution
Portugal is the European country that suffers the most with forest fires each year, and because the nation is facing a severe economic crisis optimising resources is key. That is precisely the main goal of project FIRE-ENGINE as it will help public authorities and forest owners find the best strategy to manage fires in specific regions.

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The FIRE-ENGINE started in March 2011 – joining INESC TEC’s Centre for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CITE), the Portucel Soporcel group, the Engineering Systems Division at MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) and the Higher Institute of Agronomy (ISA) at the Technical University of Lisbon – and its goal is to develop methods to support public policy and strategic decisions in the forest fire management system. The project is being developed as part of the MIT Portugal and received 450 thousand euros worth of funding from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). The Portucel Soporcel group is also investing in the project. The group continuously invests in fire management in Portugal and this year the investment amounts to over three million euros.

According to Abílio Pereira Pacheco, a researcher at CITE working on the FIRE-ENGINE, the goal with this project “is to gather a set of academic entities and an important company in this sector in order to address forest fire management holistically, with a particular emphasis on flexibility and uncertainty issues”. Moreover, it is “our intention to look at the problem beyond the fire itself and incorporate a system perspective so that we can assess different management alternatives which take into consideration environmental, technological, social, cultural and economic aspects”. The aim is to obtain inputs from all these components and thus fill the existing gaps in forest fire management systems design to effectively reduce the number of fires in the country.

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Fewer fires saving resources

The project already has a model to simulate the operation of a suppression system that makes it possible to understand the impact of two important aspects – the false alarms, which can be malicious or well-intended, and re-ignitions. This model is complemented by a statistical study based on historical data and creates a chain of positive results by reducing false alarms and re-ignitions.

“The analysis made with this model makes it possible to start a virtuous cycle: by ‘attacking’ false alarms, there will be more means for damping-down operations, thus reducing re-ignitions and ignitions, and relieving pressure on the system”, states Abílio Pereira Pacheco. According to the researcher, “false alarms take on average more than one hour to confirm after the call. Furthermore, sometimes a helicopter is sent to the area too”, which entails not only monetary costs, but also costs in terms of time and resources spent that become unavailable for real events.  

Abílio Pereira Pacheco

But there are more results. Together with MIT, also as part of FIRE-ENGINE, INESC TEC has created an optimisation and simulation system which, benefiting from flexibility applied to engineering systems design, made it possible to look at the existing fleet, more specifically vehicles used in large files, and “conclude that that fleet can actually be reduced to half its size, maintaining the same level of security” and reducing costs. The vehicles would be allocated to just some fire brigades in a flexible way according to the actual distribution of the fires. “This is also relevant because the fleet we have is quite old and this would be an opportunity to renew it”, adds the researcher. Another contribution is the spatial location recommendation which allocates resources to larger fires.

Economic, social and environmental impact

About 9% of exports in Portugal come from economic activities related to forestry, and every year direct losses associated with fires go up to 250 million euros. Furthermore, every year Portugal invests about 120 million euros in preventing and suppressing fires. As a consequence, the results of the FIRE-ENGINE may have an economic impact, but other potential benefits may come too. Thousands of tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere as a result of fires and so applying the project’s results may also have environmental benefits. Moreover, “the instruments developed as part of the FIRE-ENGINE can be applied in any area involving risk, such as medical emergency”, explains Abílio Pereira Pacheco.

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The FIRE-ENGINE has a committee of stakeholders that gather some of the most important players in the fire managements system to whom results are periodically presented. The committee includes, among others, the GNR (the Portuguese National Republican Guard, which includes the GIPS – Protection and Rescue Group, a special fire fighting force, and the SEPNA – Nature and Environment Protection Service, which identifies fire causes and provides surveillance), the CAP (confederation for the agricultural sector), the Forestis (the Portuguese forest association), the UNAC (the Mediterranean forest union), the ANPC (national authority for civil protection), the ICNF (nature and forest conservation institute), and the City Councils of Odemira and Torres Vedras. According to the researcher, “this way it is possible to receive important feedback from all these stakeholders”. Furthermore, “we have been presenting results in national and international conferences and that is also extremely important”, he stresses.

For Abílio Pereira Pacheco, the greatest asset that INESC TEC can take from this project “is an entirely new recognition in a completely new area”, which may “eventually pave the way for new projects”. To the project INESC TEC takes “important know-how that is now materialising in tools and concepts that can be used”. But the most important contribution of the FIRE-ENGINE is that “it promotes dialogue between stakeholders, something which is very hard in this area”, the researcher adds. The team – coordinated by João Claro (manager of UITT; professor at FEUP), Richard de Neufville (MIT) and Tiago Oliveira (Portucel Soporcel group) – includes Abílio Pereira Pacheco (UITT/INESC TEC), Ana Barros and Inês Mirra (Portucel Soporcel group), Ross Collins and Hèctor Fornés (MIT), José Cardoso Pereira, José Calvão Borges, Inês Melo and Brigite Botequim (ISA), and Paulo Fernandes and Carlos Loureiro (UTAD).

Photo (of fires) credits: Flickr



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