AI spots smoke plumes – sensors as a keen eye to monitor forest fires

Erhard Brodkorb looks intently at one of his three screens. The service for the 63-year-old in the forest fire center in Zossen (Teltow-Fläming) has only just begun and the sensors have already detected something. A cloud of smoke can be seen in the middle of a forest. Or is it just a cloud of dust? The forest worker is not quite sure. It has hardly rained in Brandenburg for days – especially in the south, the risk of forest fires is high again with high temperatures. The ground has dried out and there is dust – for example when fields are cultivated.

Brodkorb gets moving images on the screen and is still not convinced that there is a fire. He doesn’t have to decide that alone. Shift manager Philipp Haase provides security. He gets a follow-up image and then another image from a second sensor. Haase calls this cross bearing, with which coordinates are immediately given. “Using this second image, we can determine exactly where the fire event is and then send fire brigades to the scene in a much more targeted manner,” he explains. Later, Haase will be able to give the all-clear – thanks to the state-of-the-art technology.

The forest fire season has 214 days, says the state commissioner, Raimund Engel. The highest danger level 5 applies on average on 10 to 20 days. The levels are calculated based on precipitation, humidity, wind speed and temperature, among other things. In mid-May, the employees of the two forest fire control centers in Brandenburg identified around 100 larger and smaller fires. They monitor what is happening from danger level 3. In addition to Zossen, there is also the Eberswalde (Barnim) location, which is equipped identically.

105 optical sensors on former fire lookout towers, observation towers and mobile phone masts react as an early warning system “Fire Watch” to incipient fires. 53 of them alone are installed in the south and connected to each other via directional radio. They scan 360 degrees every six minutes for panoramic images. “The software is programmed in such a way that the sensor triggers as soon as it detects smoke development. The criteria are shape, colour, spread,” explains Engel. “The sensor sends the first alarm to the computer and reports: Something is there.”

The forest fire officer points to one of the three screens that each of the five employees has in front of them. A map automatically runs on a monitor, showing the fire area in the respective region. If a fire has broken out, the message is sent to the regional control centers within a few minutes.

“You can’t have it any better or faster,” confirms André Dreßler. The deputy head of the Lausitz regional control center gets a bit enthusiastic. “The accuracy of determining fire incidents alone is in a class of its own.” After the turnaround, a forest worker sat on every fire watchtower and passed on data. After that, these specialists were no longer available and it was more difficult for the control centers to be able to react to fires in good time. Now the fires are transmitted digitally and there are two contact persons with the headquarters, he says with satisfaction.

The situation is often critical, as in the case of a fire in a 1500 square meter forest area near Baruth. The sensors had detected that the fire was blazing not far from a gas compressor station. “Such fire incidents must be reported immediately,” explains shift manager Haase. Thanks to the fire alarm from the Zossen headquarters, the fire brigade was able to be on site quickly. The distance to the plant was less than a kilometer.

The high-resolution cameras can detect columns of smoke measuring 10 by 10 meters up to a distance of around 20 kilometers – comparable to a barbecue fire, Engel explains. The sensors can even detect a larger fire in an area 40 kilometers away – impossible for the human eye. Space technology, says Engel. Sensor electronics and image processing software were therefore developed as part of a Mars mission. The sensors should record dust clouds on Mars. The German Aerospace Institute has further developed the technology. A sensor head with high optics now also monitors what is happening on earth.

When they hear the word “suspected areas”, the employees usually become particularly sensitive. The explosive ordnance disposal service regularly sends current data. Brandenburg has the largest proportion of munitions contaminated areas. There are conversion areas – areas that are burdened by the withdrawal of Russian troops – as well as areas that were once used for military purposes. Ordnance from the Second World War is still suspected on 350,000 hectares.

If there is a fire there, the fire brigade cannot access the areas. The so-called “red zones” are cordoned off and the fire can only be contained from outside or from the air. At the end of June 2019, the fire raged on 100 hectares of the former military training area in the Lieberoser Heide. The risk of fires there remains high given the current temperatures and the severe drought. According to Engel, it should remain dry for the coming week, except for a few drops. “The situation remains tense.”

The two forest fire control centers in Brandenburg are a novelty, the other eastern federal states as well as Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania only have one control center. In the event of a failure, Brandenburg could step in. There is already a cooperation with Saxony. Engel would like to see this extended to the other neighboring federal states. “Ultimately, it’s a system for public safety, so borders shouldn’t be a barrier.”


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