Hot warning system for tracking fires

The Advanced Fire Information System uses satellite technology to warn of actual and impending fires. (David Harrison, M&G)

The Advanced Fire Information System uses satellite technology to warn of actual and impending fires. (David Harrison, M&G)

The African continent looks like an artist's ­palette on the Advanced Fire Information ­System's (Afis's) map: yellow splotches colour the east coast of South Africa; further north over Angola, it appears as though the artist is mixing a large swath of autumn tones: orange, yellow and russet. These are fires of differing intensity, transmitted to the Afis website in real time by satellites.

The system, developed by researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's (CSIR's) information and communication technology unit, the Meraka Institute, is not just being used by South Africa, it has also been exported to other parts of the continent as well as to South America.

Earlier this year, the CSIR signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Technology Centre of the Angolan ministry of science and technology to pilot the Afis technology in that country, which has the highest incidence of fires in Africa.

The sytem allows for real-time identification and warning of fires, as well as an automated text system to warn that a particular area is burning, or about to burn.

"All those dots and spots you see on the map? Those are fires burning right now," said Lee Annamalai, Earth observation competency ­manager at the Meraka Institute.

"The real value of Afis is that it brings the data to you in your hand," he said, pointing at my smartphone. "Anyone can go online and use it."

Eskom is a major client and was involved in the system's development because of the need to protect its transmission lines.

Multitude of satellites
On the power utility's website, Hein Vosloo, a specialist in Eskom's transmission unit, said: "If you look at South Africa, our power stations are typically in the northeastern part of the country, but on the other end, about a thousand miles away, we have Cape Town.
Between Cape Town and the power stations, there are about 28 000km of high-voltage transmission lines. I remember in 2002, we had 35 line faults on one day. On that particular day, we lost our power supply to Cape Town because two of our major lines went out as a result of two fires, which were 295km from each other."

Eskom has Afis in its control centre to gauge what is happening at a national level, said Annamalai.

The entire system hinges on data from a "multitude of satellites", both geostationary and polar orbiting. Because polar satellites are closer to the Earth, they offer higher resolution and are able to detect smaller fires, but they "[take images] only three times during the day and three times at night", Annamalai said.

The geostationary satellites, which belong to the United States's National Aeronautics and Space Administration and have Modis (moderate resolution imaging ­spectroradiometer) equipment on board, give data every 15 minutes, but can detect only large fires.

"It's just a hot-spot detector," Annamalai said. "There are infrared cameras on the satellites and we run algorithms to take out false alarms: things that burn all the time, like coal stacks, or reflections on water. We built and wrote all of that [code] ourselves. In the fire season [which starts in June], we can process up to 10 000 [fire] events a month."

However, Afis does not only tell the public and its clients about fires after the fact, it also predicts whether an area is in danger of wild fires.

"We use weather data and scientific models of [an area's] fire-danger index. Each model is specific to an area. For example, [in Mpumalanga] we use a lowveld fire-danger model, buy forecasted weather data and weather station information on the ground, put that all into the model and measure the dryness of the vegetation on the ground using the satellite data," Annamalai said.

This information is given on a separate panel on the Afis website.

Better prepared
"When you've got a dangerous-to-extreme fire-danger index, there is a high likelihood that, if a fire breaks out, you won't be able to control it. We predict the fire-danger index and make the information available so you are better prepared," he said.

The satellite data is supplied to Afis researchers by the South African National Space Agency's Earth observation directorate, said director Jane Olwoch. "All the data they use for Afis is supplied by us." The Modis data is free because South Africa is part of the international Group on Earth Observations.

About 10 years in the making, the fire detection system has cost about R15-million, obtained from the government and Eskom, which has gone into "investment into research and development, the systems, mobile apps and models, to assess the data and receiving stations", Annamalai said. "South Africa remains our core base," he said, but mentioned demand in other markets such as Brazil, Argentina and other African countries.

"The system is already live globally. We've been searching for other commercial clients, such as power utilities, in other parts of the world, or forest plantations in South America. We hope to turn those pilots into commercial [operations] once Afis has proved its value."

Luke Radebe, the deputy director in the department of environmental affairs' national veld and forest fire oversight unit, said: "We are using [Afis] in a limited capacity, but we want to use it further to get statistics and integrate it with other [data]. We are engaged with other stakeholders."

At the moment, Afis is used to determine how much of South Africa's land area is burned each year. Although Annamalai noted that the fire-monitoring service is "the most mature product", there are plans to expand the observation to include data on illegal fishing and urban planning, among other areas.

There is hope that when South Africa launches its own satellite, ZA-ARMC-1, it will boost the country's Earth-observation abilities. "Because it belongs to us, we would be able to [direct] our satellite to any area where there is drought or flooding," Olwoch said.

The satellite, which has been allocated R272-million over three years, is in the development phase.

See the map at afis.co.za

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild