Local wildfire detection system shines

The FireHawk cameras mounted on the Marten Mountain Lookout Tower in Canada were monitored by the FireHawk ops room in Chile.

The South African-developed FireHawk wildfire detection system has been found to be the most effective fixed fire detection and reporting system in an international trial that took place in Canada recently.

FireHawk combines human skill with artificial intelligence to keep watch over two million hectares of forest land around the world, alerting landowners and triggering rapid response whenever a fire is detected.

Willem Oosthuizen, CEO of FireHawk South Africa, explains: “The Alberta Wildfire Detection Challenge was a collaboration between Alberta Wildfire, Alberta Innovates, and FPInnovations. Six commercially-available fixed fire detection systems were installed and operated on the Marten Mountain Lookout tower near Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada, during the 2022 wildfire season. The aim was to test these fire detection systems in an operational environment in an area that experiences an average of 20 wildfires annually.”

The trial programme organisers invited 17 leading fire detection service providers from around the world to submit applications. This was narrowed down to the best six applicants who were selected to take part in the challenge. The selected applicants were provided a contract with funding to demonstrate their systems using their own proprietary equipment. A total of 54 events were recorded during the test period, and of these 14 were real wildfires and 33 were test smokes.

The Marten Mountain Fire Lookout Tower manned by local fire watch personnel also participated in the trial in order to provide comparative data.

The FireHawk cameras mounted on the Marten Mountain Lookout Tower were monitored remotely from FireHawk’s operations base in Chile for the trial.

Study location
All systems were installed on the Marten Mountain Lookout tower in Alberta, Canada. The tower is 20 km north of the Town of Slave Lake. The 40 km radius of the lookout coverage area has the following views: to the west is the waterbody of Slave Lake; to the east is a hill that limits visibility; to the south is the town of Slave Lake and the Mitsue industrial area; to the north is forest. Boreal forest species are the primary vegetation cover. Many industrial activities such as forestry, oil, and gas are also spread across the landscape.

This boreal forest area experiences a high number of wildfires due to a high number of lightning strikes and human activities. In 2011, a wildfire entered the town of Slave Lake and burned around 500 structures.

Evaluation metrics
Four metrics were used to evaluate the performance of the detection systems: detection distance, reporting efficiency, location accuracy, and system availability.

Detection distance
Results show the Marten Mountain Lookout observer was effective at the 40 km distance for both test smokes and wildfires. In addition, the lookout observer also detected a wildfire smoke at 46 km.

Of the six fixed detection systems, FireHawk had the best performance with an 88% detection success rate between 10 and 20 km on test smokes, and 78% between 20 and 30 km.

Reporting efficiency
FireHawk had the fastest average time reporting test smokes among the six systems: 3 minutes @ 5-10 kms; 6 minutes @ 10-20 kms; 10 mins @ 20-30 kms; 7 mins @ 30-40 kms.

The Marten Mountain Lookout observer was the best performer of all trialists with an average of 4 minutes over all distances. The rest of the fixed systems exceeded 10 minutes.

System availability
The total number of operational hours between July 1 and September 15 (8:00 am to 8:00 pm daily) was 924 hours.

The Marten Mountain Lookout observer did not have any downtime. Neither did FireHawk, which recorded 100% availability.

Firehawk systems use human operators. The data shows that these systems perform better than systems that do not have human operators.

Location accuracy
IQ FireWatch had the best accuracy on reporting locations and was better than the Marten Mountain lookout’s performance. SmokeD was second overall, but the sample numbers were too low beyond 10 kms to determine the reliability of the result.

Night detection
Night detection is the detection service provided during low or no sunlight. ForestWatch, SmokeD, and FireHawk chose to provide detection coverage outside of the operational period which included night detection. Only eight detection messages from public reporting and FireHawk were considered as night detection.

These results show that FireHawk has the ability to detect fires during night time. Two successful night detections were the results of an attended fire and a car fire. These two detection successes suggest that this type of detection system could be used as a monitoring tool at night.

Human operators
Firehawk, IQ FireWatch, ForestWatch, and SmokeD systems used human operators. The data showed that these systems performed better than systems that did not have human operators.

FireHawk also had the lowest number of false alarms at 11 over the two and a half months trial period.

“We are proud that our FireHawk system experienced no downtime during the detection challenge, and had the highest number of detection successes among the systems taking part in the programme,” said Willem. “It was a privilege to take part in this international testing of different wildfire detection systems.”

Where it all began
After 16 years of experience in aerial spraying and aerial fire fighting, Jake Oosthuizen formed Zululand Fire Protection Services cc. (ZFPS) in 1994 with the object of providing a service to the Zululand timber industry. Initially, the operation was started by taking over the control centre of the Zululand Fire Protection Association (ZFPA), which coordinated all fire fighting operations in the Zululand Coastal Area (approximately 80 000 hectares of timber).

At that time, the Control Centre had a very low profile and provided a basic communication service to the timber growers in the area. Over time, the Control Centre became the heart of all firefighting operations in Zululand. ZFPS expanded to include the management of ZIFPA.

In 1994, ZFPS was instrumental in the development of the FireHawk system that is today used in South Africa, Chile, Brazil, Malawi and Ghana.

FireHawk was the first computerized fire detection system in the world and has been operating commercially for the past 28 years. The first system was installed in Richmond in 1994 and is still operational today.

This is where it all started … the first FireHawk system was installed in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal in 1994, and is still operational today.

The FireHawk system uses 360 degrees rotating high definition digital cameras to monitor areas and transmits information to a base station that is manned by operators. The software differentiates between fire, smoke and glow, and then raises an alarm. Positioning is done from a single camera, with the ability to cross reference for improved accuracy.

FireHawk now monitors approximately 591 000 hectares of timber plantations in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga.

It also monitors 650 000 ha of timber in Chile, 155 000 ha in Brazil, 4 000 ha of sugar cane in Malawi and 600 000 ha of Burmese Teak in Ghana.

Find out more at firehawk.co.za