IFSJ Exclusive: Europe’s biggest fire suppression system

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Ferran Dalmu-Rovira, CEO at Medi XXI GSA, talks to IFSJ about one of the biggest forest fire suppression systems ever developed

Can you give me some background on the GUARDIAN project?

Medi XXI GSA is an environmental engineering company founded 21 years ago. Under our combined operative, technical, and preventive experience, the recurrence of wildfires in the Mediterranean area, added to rural abandonment, climate change, residential areas proliferation in risk areas and changes in social sensitivity about environmental matters and forest management necessarily required a revision of the precepts of traditional preventive forestry.

In 2005 we began exploring new methods of working in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) areas and the need to manage vegetation to adapt it to drier environments and understood that it must include, if sustainable, integrated and comprehensive solutions are desired, the integrated water cycle and a forest-hydrological approach to the problem.

Our GUARDIAN project was one of the 22 selected from the 184 projects presented from 21 European countries. In the Adapting to Climate Change category, 43 candidates took part and 6 were selected: GUARDIAN, along with projects from big cities like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Manchester and Seville.

Tell me about the development of the project over its lifetime? Who and what was involved?

At the beginning in (2005-2006) only our team was involved. Our first project was with one community (Santa Marina’s people), one local government (Carcaixent city council), and a small grant from our regional government (Valencian regional government). Following its success, in 2008 another local government from our region (Torrent city council, València) decided to develop an installation in the neighbourhood of El Vedat. In this project we met our partners from Hidraqua which is a company specialized in water networks management. This installation has 24 fixed sprinkler towers, a Total Mobilizable Water Volume of 1,600 m3 – 423,000 gal and a Water Power of 18,000 liters/minute – 4,800 gallons/minute during 85 minutes.

In 2018 they offered us to enter into a consortium with two Valencian city councils (Riba-roja del Túria, who would lead the project, and Paterna, as a beneficiary) because they are municipalities that share a forest border, and a wildfire problem in the Turia’s river natural park. During the project we also worked Universitat Politècnica de València – UPV, Universitat de València – UV, and CETAQUA, which is a water technology center based in Barcelona.

What were the main design considerations being made in designing the sprinkler system?

Our methodology is based on the four pillars: planning, fuel management, infrastructure and training. We include all these approaches in the design process. Specifically, about engineering, we use several methodologies of our own, because there is no specific standard in Europe that regulates sprinkler installations in WUI areas. We use comparative simulation, we use US Forest Service simulators, we use the standard for hydrant – based fire networks, and we add the towers and the sprinklers at the end of the line.

We use UNO methodologies, and NFPA to work with the communities, according with them the fuels management, and finally, we use a model of “type of wildfires” or “design wildfires” that was designed by the Fire Paradox project team (also European Commission financed) between 2006 and 2010. If the most severe wildfire in a region can be characterised, the expected impact against a WUI area can be characterised too. We have designed a defensive model for a general classification of WUI zones.

Were there any significant issues that arose during the project that you had to overcome?

The GUARDIAN project had a 3-year implementation period. Two years to resolve paperwork (and problems) and less than one year to execute the work. No one said it would be easy to design, but I always say that if it were easy, there would be no need for engineers. Main problems were making people understand the need for forest management, overcoming the fact of using water from a sewage treatment plant for use in a fire fighting system in a populated area, an area near an airport, but we have overcome all the problems thanks to an exceptional engineering team composed of people with different profiles, and a lot of personal commitment to the project.

How and when is the sprinkler system deployed?

There are two phases of operation. When there is no fire, preventive water is provided. These are the prescribed irrigations. In order to make this decision, an algorithm has been designed that is fed by the sensory network. It can also be activated on demand if the risk is considered to be high, or if there is a fire nearby, but not in the operational area. We calculate the Fire Weather Index, adapted, continuously, and when the plants exceed certain thresholds, we activate the system. The tricky part is to know when it is enough, because exceeding the recommended irrigation doses can cause excessive growth of the forest biomass, and this is not desirable.

The other scenario is activated when there is a fire within the system’s area of influence. We have three isochrones that are calculated from the simulation module of the platform. When the fire warning is received, the operator puts the point in the simulator and within one minute receives the data. Depending on the area of the starting point and the weather conditions, it is determined when the system should be activated.

Part of the water is supplied before the arrival of the fire, and the other part is reserved for the moment of impact. The system can be operated from a computer or from the smartphone app, so responsiveness is immediate. It takes less than 5 minutes from the time the warning is received until the system is activated. This gives us time for the emergency services to arrive. It is important to emphasize that it is not an extinguishing system, but a defense system. Our objective is to support ground operations, so that fewer units are needed to protect homes.

Are there any future development plans for the system?

We currently installing another system in Albufera’s Natural Park, and we have 11 more facilities under negotiation. The support from the European Commission has given us significant visibility, although the economic effort has been very important in our case. We have invested 400,000 euros in this project, in addition to the previous effort since 2005. We are working with the data sets we are obtaining to implement improvements based on artificial intelligence, and we are waiting for the burning season to begin to conduct trials for yield improvement. These projects require years to acquire specific knowledge.

Our plan for the next few years is to recoup the investment, and share the knowledge gained with other teams who share our values. We have learned a lot from NFPA in the United States, from CSIRO in Australia, from CONAF in Chile, from the Valparaiso Fire Department in Argentina, from our French and Italian friends. It is only fair to share what we have learned with other countries. We are working (and improving) with VR and AR too. We train the people (professionals and civilians) with this technology.

What lessons have you learned and what knowledge have you gained over the course of the project?

This year our country [Spain] has lost more than 300,000 hectares during the wildfire season. We do not know yet if this is the ‘new normal’. If this is the new normal and drought becomes more frequent, more intense and longer lasting we must be prepared. This project has confirmed what we already sensed: protecting communities from wildfires is not a technical problem. We have the knowledge and tools to protect communities even in extreme conditions. And I would like to state for the record that I speak from humility. Forest fires teach you to be humble. But what I have just said is a statement of fact. Protecting communities today is more of an economic, social and political problem than a technical one.

Many people do not understand that they live in risk areas. And that home ownership implies ownership of the risk to which that home is exposed. The public authorities must understand that no more buildings can be authorised in risk areas in order to, at least, not aggravate the problem. Nor is it helped by people who continue to deny, despite the evidence, the influence of Climate Change on extreme wildfires. And this, again, is not a technical problem.

With this project we have learned that by explaining the problem to the community properly, door to door, and explaining the actions to be carried out, the results are favorable. We have incorporated the local environmental groups to the supervision staff and they have participated in the project process. And finally, we have been able to demonstrate, thanks to the people who specialise in economics, how much savings we can bring to society through this tool.

Another thing we have learned, and it is very important, is that a combination of different tools works better than one tool alone. Sprinklers without forest management are useless. Forest management without prescribed burning does not work. Prescribed burning without herbivores is no good. Tools must be combined to obtain sustainable results in the long term. We use the complete toolbox.

GUARDIAN’s proposal is sustainable forest management adapted to the needs of the 21st century, incorporating Climate Change into the equation. This is perhaps the most important lesson learned. We have adapted and improved knowledge that has been useful for centuries. Without proper land management, no effective response to new fires is possible.

Project GUARDIAN in numbers

  • Total project budget: €5,494,755
  • EU Financing: 80%. €4,395,804
  • Execution time: 3 years
  • Towns involved: Riba-Roja de Túria and Paterna. Túria’s River Natural Park
  • Forest area managed: 35 hectares / 86,49 acres
  • Annual volume of regenerated water: 80,000 m3 / 21,133,764 gal
  • Water reservoirs: 5 (500 m3 / 132,000 gal each)
  • Total Mobilizable Water Volume: 2,500m3 / 660,500 gal
  • Water Power: 22,950 liters/minute – 6,100 gallon/minute during 100 – 105 min.
  • Water recovery total time: 3 days
  • Population potentially affected: 15,000 inhabitants
  • Fixed sprinkler towers: 40
  • Portable sprinkler towers: 12
  • Pipeline’s length: 6.5 km / 4 miles
  • Number of sensors: 164 (including weather stations, soil, atmospheric and tree sensors) managed with WUIProtect NETSense platform
  • Green firebreaks plants planted: 2,000 units of less combustible species

This article was originally published in the January edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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