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Purdue Researchers Aim to Prevent Wildfires by ‘Studying Every Tree’

Purdue University’s Institute for Digital Forestry is developing a variety of remote-sensing solutions that can enhance the ability to determine the probability and magnitude of wildfires at a given location.

Wildfires are now an inescapable part of our climate-changing reality: According to the National Interagency Fire Center, since January 1, 2024, 23,405 wildfires have burned 2,817,728 acres across the United States alone; as of July 9, 69 large, active wildfires — which have so far burned 612,376 acres — are currently being managed nationwide.

Land managers and governments worldwide are fighting against decades-long wildfire increases with every tool they’ve got — and technologies ranging from drones, satellites and artificial intelligence to gas sensors are helping to improve early-detection capabilities.

Researchers at Purdue University’s Institute for Digital Forestry are also developing a variety of remote-sensing solutions that they say can enhance the ability to determine the probability and magnitude of wildfires at a given location.

“With digital technology, my colleagues and I can study every tree — from root to canopy,” explains Songlin Fei, institute director and Dean’s Chair in Remote Sensing. “We conduct field mapping of wildfire risks at a scale that provides critical and actionable information.”

Fei’s team of Institute researchers is creating “digital twins” (3D, virtual replicas created to gather data and analytics that provide insights into the interrelated systems that determine an item’s performance — increasingly used to optimize everything from buildings to packaging) of an area’s forest to obtain critical insights into its ecology. These digital twins allow detailed fire modeling and simulation, while facilitating public outreach and education.

Fei says the team’s digital maps also augment sustainable forest management by improving logistics that lead to better understanding of timber quality and quantity.

Other fire-fighting innovations

Ayman Habib — the Dr. Thomas A. Page Professor in Civil Engineering — leads a team that has integrated medium-altitude, near-proximal and proximal sensing technologies on crewed aircrafts, uncrewed aerial vehicles and wearable backpacks to capture RGB and thermal imagery and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) point clouds in forests.

“We are also working on developing data analytic strategies for modeling the forest floor; together with the detection of woody debris and description of the underlying layer of young and short species of trees, shrubs and soft-stemmed plants,” he said.

Aeronautics and astronautics professor James Garrison and his team recently released a satellite named SNOOPI (SigNals Of Opportunity: P-band Investigation) from the International Space Station for a proof-of-concept demonstration mission to see if satellite transmissions can be reutilized for Earth remote sensing of biomass and moisture content of wooded areas.

“The amount of biomass above the surface and the water contained in vegetation are theoretically measurable from SNOOPI’s observations,” Garrison said. “These variables, along with the soil moisture, are critical for predicting the risk of wildfires.”

Bedrich Benes, professor of computer science, leads the computational vegetation group that focuses on forest reconstruction and building digital twins of plants at their functional level; the group plans to use the 3D tree volumetric digital twins to replicate large-scale forest fires.

“Forest fires are often simulated on the scale of individual trees, and that does not capture their internal structure,” Benes asserted. “We want to bring it to the level of individual branches and leaves.”

Michael Jenkins, professor of forestry and natural resources, and Jinha Jung, associate professor of civil engineering, have an ongoing project to quantify forest-fuel characteristics in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“We’re hoping to use some of the digital forestry techniques that have been developed, especially with LiDAR, to look at the vertical and horizontal distribution of fuels to see how it may or may not aid the spread of fire,” Jenkins said. “You have to look on the ground and understand what it means ecologically. We’re particularly interested in some of the evergreen shrubs that occur in the southern Appalachians and to parse out the height, the cover and potentially the species of those shrubs,” which Jenkins explained can serve as “ladder fuel” that can greatly intensify surface fires.

Another Institute collaboration between Daniel Aliaga and Aniket Bera, both associate professors in the Department of Computer Science, will apply digital technologies to urban fire analysis.

Using satellite data, Aliaga and Bera’s team recently completed a digital inventory of trees and buildings in 330 cities with populations greater than 100,000 in all 50 states. Aliaga said questions they’re looking to address include “What are the urban codes, the urban policies we should change or implement to reduce likelihood of fire starting and fire transmission?”

Urban forest-fire studies could also help answer some seemingly simple questions such as where to put fire stations and fire hydrants.

Aliaga’s team has conducted a study stemming from the 2018 Camp Fire in California. The researchers found that by using archived satellite data, they can inventory every tree before and after a fire.

Urban forest fires are less studied than wildfires, Bera noted: “It is studied, but not to the degree of how plumes or gases or the fire itself spreads — can we build better predictive models in urban situations?”

The Institute for Digital Forestry’s goal is to develop digital platforms and strategies that measure, monitor and manage urban and rural forests to maximize social, economic and ecological benefits.

“We use the ‘measuring every tree on the planet’ slogan to inspire us, to be our moonshot goal,” Fei said. “If you know the quality and quantity of your resources, you can be a better manager.”