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Innovation at the forefront of wildfire prevention

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The 2017 wildfire season was the worst on record, and experts bracing for another tough year are looking at technology, analytics and other innovations to mitigate wildfire risk.

In 2017, there were 71,499 wildfires, compared with 65,575 wildfires in the same period in 2016, according to the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center. About 10 million acres burned in the 2017 period compared with 5.4 million in 2016, the agency said. Aon P.L.C. put insurance and reinsurance industry loss estimates for the California wildfires at $13.2 billion.

“It’s right on track to be another bad season,” said Mark McCormick, Washington-based vice president of global risk solutions for QBE North America, a unit of Australian insurer QBE Insurance Group Ltd. “So far, this year, as of the first of July, we’ve had 31,000 in the Western U.S., and it’s right around 3.1 million acres burned so far and about 4% higher than the 10-year average.”

A study by Allianz S.E. said last year’s fires destroyed more than 10,800 structures and killed at least 46 people.

The Allianz report also warned that volatile weather is driving up temperatures and increasing wildfire risks.

“Temperatures in the Western U.S. are expected to increase by 2.4° to 6.5°F by mid-century,” the report said, referring to degrees Fahrenheit. “In the early 1970s, the average length of the wildfire season was five months. Today, it lasts more than seven. The scale of these fires has increased to the degree that the fires themselves are now contributing to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Early detection is the best way to combat wildfires, with a wildfire detection system designed to alert business and property owners on their smartphones if they detect smoke in the area, Mr. McCormick said.

SmokeD, which is made by IT for Nature in Burbank, California, is an artificial intelligence computer with a camera that the company said can detect fires up to 10 miles away. Customers can download an app that will alert them if a fire is detected near their property.

There are also structure-mounted foam spray systems that will smother fires, he said.

In addition, Mr. McCormick said the U.S. Department of Interior is using solar-powered drones in New Mexico to monitor wildfires from the air. The drones can stay aloft for up to five hours and can be equipped with infrared cameras and other sensors for real-time surveillance and imaging.

Ilkay Altintas, chief data science officer at the San Diego supercomputer center at University of California, San Diego, said the university’s WIFIRE collaboration has developed a web-based tool called Firemap to perform data-driven predictive modeling and track fires in real time. Several California fire departments are using Firemap, Ms. Altintas said.

The WIFIRE project includes researchers from the supercomputer center, the university’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology’s Qualcomm Institute, and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department at the UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. The University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering is also a participant.

“The main goal is to predict fires’ rate of spread and direction, and it integrates data, computing, modeling, visualization and other tools relating to wildfire research,” she said. “We can drop a pin on the map and model where the fire will be in the next one to six hours.”

Verisk Analytics Inc.’s Fireline risk management tool provides a score for the risk factors of fuel, slope and access, as well as an overall hazard score.

“When we look at the mitigation side of wildfires, one of the key aspects of that is to understand where the risk is,” said Arindam Samanta, Boston-based director of product management and innovation for Verisk. “Understanding the risk at the location of individual properties or business is a key aspect of understanding where the mitigation should take place.”

Mr. Samanta added that “climate determines if you will have a wildfire season or not.”

“One of the things we know for the last several decades is that there is a trend toward an expansion of the wildfire season,” he said. “We know wildfire season is essentially yearlong.”

Michael Ginn, a fire investigator with Fire Cause Analysis, a security and investigations company specializing in fire investigation and forensic engineering services, in Berkeley, said that this year the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFIRE, has pre-positioned strike teams around the state to respond to fires more rapidly.

“The most important thing is basic risk management,” said Michael Brown, vice president and property department manager for Golden Brown Insurance Co. in Stockton, California. “You’ve got to clear a defensible space around your property. You’ve got to give the fire department a chance. If you’ve got dry brush up to 10 or 15 feet away from a wood frame building, it’s almost like laying out a red carpet to invite the fire in.”

CalFIRE recommends a minimum of 100 feet of clearance in a brush zone, but “200 feet is better,” Mr. Brown said.

“One thing last year really taught us is that the old-school mitigation practices actually work,” Mr. McCormick of QBE North America said. “For businesses creating defensible space, creating disaster plans, hardening the structures of the businesses, having noncombustible materials incorporated with the construction — those work.”