Technology change is boon to area

In spite of major drought and forest fire danger, far fewer and less extensive fires have occurred than any previous time with similar conditions so far this fire season.
Why? Major technology changes. It’s easier to recognize them in a historical context.
At one time, fire watch was held by individuals perched in lonely towers above the forest. Firefighting was done by land crews transported in canoes and later in trucks. The MNR organization was set up to supply and support the tower people all summer.
When the float plane was introduced (a new technology!), the organization changed. There were still towers and trucks but now paper bags of water were dumped from the air.
The organization became tied to docks. Fixed lakeside fire bases had storage and repair space, maintenance crews and equipment, living quarters for staff and crews. They were year-round mini-villages.
Now the technology change is information. It’s a big change!
Fire watch is done electronically. Sensors in the forest monitor temperature, humidity, and wind speed. GIS equipment records the path of thunderstorms and the pattern of lightning strikes, cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-earth. Cumulative data show where lightning fires are most common.
Still other sensors record “hot spots” where a fire may have gone underground, a garbage can is burning, or a stump is smouldering.
The locations of most likely fires are known from pattern analysis. This makes first response effective. It makes prevention and fire control possible.
This summer, crews deployed from temporary bases at the Atikokan airport and Quetico Centre successfully put out over 50 fires in one weekend. None of them became serious.
Firefighting still involves hard physical labour. But people are deployed with helicopters and planes, and both people and waterbombers work quite differently.
Data gathering and the computing technology to assemble and interpret the data produce real-time information. That can be done anywhere, in very little space.
All that makes fixed fire bases obsolete. Their closure is not mainly a cost-cutting measure. The change is driven by technology. It makes organizational and general economic sense.
As the fire hazard changes, provincial and contract firefighting crews are deployed as needed right across Canada. They are led by a core of trained, experienced local MNR staff.
Forecasting, monitoring, and propositioning fire crews to the areas of imminent danger are now the essence of forest fire management. That doesn’t require fixed bases. In fact, they can be a problem.
Temporary, even momentary, bases make more sense. All across Ontario, the MNR is contracting locally to “set up camp” when needed. They dismantle just as fast.
The next challenge for the MNR also involves information technology. The general public must be caused to understand the value of fire to the forest. Readers who balk at this sentence illustrate that challenge.
With public understanding of the potential worth of forest fires, the effort will more often be to contain rather than fight fires. That will further reduce cost. It also will mean more organizational changes to meet different service demands and use new technologies.
Meanwhile, how about giving the MNR and its firefighting crews a big bouquet!

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