Fighting fires with satellites

Fighting fires with satellites

14 April 2011

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Russia — Last summer’s smoke and flames have prompted the Emergencies’ Ministry to post an online satellite map to chart the progress of forest fires and promote public safety in the coming summer – but experts say that coordination is a bigger issue.

The regularly updated map, posted on the ministry’s website, has the potential to damp the flames of public discontent. Nevertheless, battle-hardened volunteers suspect that the confusion and lack of coordination which caused last year’s troubles could still be a problem.

“In general I think the website is a good idea but equally people have already been working on a website using the same technology for a while and it would have been more logical if the ministry had approached these people so that they could cooperate and work together,” Anastasia Severina, Karta Pomoshchi (Help Map) volunteers’ coordinator, told The Moscow News. “It is good that they are using this space photographing technology and publicising it, because now they won’t be able to suppress information.”

“Satellite pictures are marked with thermally generated images, including controlled and preventative undergrowth burning for agriculture, the illegal burning of dry grass, campfires and burning rubbish tips,” the ministry’s press service said in a statement, RIA Novosti reported.

“The pressing question of the moment is flooding peatlands and a large budget, a million roubles, has already been put aside for this purpose. We are following the situation with satellite images, which reflect where the epicentres of the fires are,” assured Alexander Krai, head of the Emergencies’ Ministry Central Region office, a report on the Public Chamber’s news portal said.

The peat bogs dried out last summer, creating a tinderbox which duly burst into flame, engulfing swathes of the country in choking smog. Recent reports suggest that the problem has not gone away, raising fears that more hot weather could bring disaster again.

Fancy technology is all well and good but Severina says that what is really needed is proper coordination, and there are at least some nods in this direction.

“The Emergencies’ Ministry has realised that there is a very important aspect to their work, which is volunteer labour…Systematic cooperation must exist and not just within the ministry… There should also be staff to coordinate volunteers,” Elena Topoleva-Soldunova, a member of the Public Chamber, wrote on the chamber’s news portal.

Severina is reasonably optimistic about the progress that this is making, as there are now moves to coordinate both Karta Pomoshchi’s and the ministry’s website, which should help improve coordination.

“The main thing when you are fighting fires is to react as soon as possible. Sometimes there are places where the flames are fading away, so you don’t need 10 fire engines to extinguish them,” Severina said, pointing out that at other times, urgent action is required and this at times was not taken.

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