Proposed Prize Design Structure

We are interested in focusing a prize specifically on wildfire suppression. In light of the increasing risk to lives and assets, the focus is on suppression of Wildland-Urban Interface fires, before these escalate into large fire events that put communities at risk. Here is an initial description of a proposed prize. In the other topics in the community, you’ll find different categories of feedback we would love to get on this design.

We understand that a prize designed in this way may result in a different approach or paradigm for firefighting, and we invite you to explore—for example, with faster detection and response, can fires be extinguished without traditional containment and control strategies?

The Proposed Prize: We are proposing a prize that works something like the following: Teams are invited to test a fully integrated autonomous system that rapidly detects, responds and suppresses wildfires. There will be a competition testing area of X by X acres (NOTE: we are proposing testing in an outdoor environment). At the beginning of the test, competition officials will ignite a fire somewhere within the testing grid. Once Y threshold of spread, temperature, flame height, or another variable is crossed, the competing team will have Z minutes to detect and completely extinguish the fire. The overall cost of the teams’ system must be no more than C dollars. Solutions must not pose an risk to the environment and/or lives.

Hi all,
Please allow us to clarify, when we say ‘suppression’ or ‘completely extinguish the fire,’ our focus is on teams’ demonstrating the complete capability to detect and extinguish fires while they are still small. We will ask teams to go through the entire process of detecting the fire, deploying resources and ultimately putting the fire out, before it turns into a large fire event or a ‘Mega Fire.’

This is indeed a challenge!

It would seem, then, at first read, that a successful solution must have a minimum of 2 to 3 components: 1] rapid AND accurate detection of the small fire, 2] rapid communication (as an integrated component) of this information (i.e., fire presence and location) to a fire fighting team, and, 3] rapid deployment of a fire fighting team (with “all the resources” * required for fire fighting).

So then, some questions follow:

Is this component ‘breakdown’ fundamentally valid and accurate (i.e., are these components absolute requirements for any wildfire suppression solution)?

If yes, should any Wildfires XPrize delineate these components in its description details – so as to help/assist the would-be Solver team in clarifying or simplifying its approach to the challenge?

  • “all the resources” is a variable capability, and will depend on how integrated the team’s capabilities are with local and state agencies (and their resources and capabilities); examples: access to forest fire trucks, aerial resources (drones, helicopters or water or chemical -dumping planes, etc.). This will likely be a crucial aspect of any wildfire suppression solution.


Communication (of the fire’s presence and location) is an often forgotten component of the fire-fighting process; it is typically a ‘presumed’ component, but which may turn out to be the key component in the success or failure of a wildfire suppression challenge/test (consider the failure of communication technology among first responders during the 9/11 attacks). This component will therefore need to be developed, tested, and implemented/deployed (for at least within the area in which the wildfire test will occur) ahead of time (troubleshooting during an active challenge/test wold be a recipe for failure).

Lastly, I will note that I use the word ‘rapid’ in each of the 3 component descriptions; obviously, when dealing with wildfires, rapidity of detection, communication, and response is crucial.

I suggest a component of the prize include testing a product or method of preventing the wildfire. Research shows that most wildfires start from a tiny spark and because of present conditions such as scrub brush, dry weather and air flow the spark easily establishes itself and grows into the wildfire.

@marz62 Thank you for your comment. You’ve raised a critical point regarding the different component of the fire attack process. While the integration of the various components is essential for the overall mission, often across detection, response, and suppression resources, there are different capabilities and expertise. We are exploring ways to bridge between the components, including introducing teams. Nonetheless, if you have any ideas, please do share with us. Would you have thoughts about existing integrations of these ‘components’?

@pzazzday Thank you for your comment. Indeed prevention and forecasting are crucial; this prize focuses on the increased risk for lives and assets, avoiding tragedy once a fire began spreading. Nonetheless, data and modeling can play a key role in emergency response. You’ve mentioned the high-risk conditions, would you be able to expand more on these, specifically environmental conditions relevant to WUI areas in fire-prone areas?

@Eti, @pzazzday - if I may…I will note that one of the major factors driving the spread of wildfires is soil moisture (or its loss); prolonged drought tends to result in loss of soil moisture. Thus, finding ways to prevent or mitigate soil moisture loss would be fundamental to the prevention side of the wildfire challenge (for example: see studies by Ashton et al, Science, 11 January, 2019. pp. 174-177; focusing on termites’ role in preventing soil moisture loss in damaged / semi-desertified tropical forests).

@Eti - I will give your follow-up response to my comment some thought.

A few quick thoughts:

It seems that I have unintentionally brought up an issue regarding possible inequity in fire-fighting resources among (future) challenge teams. This can be tricky, as integration of these components (to facilitate a potentially successful challenge by one or more teams) would seem to be a (unique and) defining feature of a successful team.

On the other hand, if one team has access to an advanced detection technology, for example, this would give the team a greater advantage in terms of spotting the fire early and triangulating its location (which will determine where the team will enter the ‘fire zone’/challenge field, etc.). As another example, if one team has heavy-duty fire trucks (which can knock down certain sized trees) while other teams do not, this would throw advantage (‘on the ground’) to the former team, etc.

So then, a major question here is WHICH resources do ALL teams share equally (i.e., resources available to each team during each challenge test), and, WHICH resources are a matter of choice and/or individual team innovation/creativity…?

Perhaps we should start with identifying those MINIMUM resources that ALL teams will/would need to establish a minimum fire-fighting capability.

More to come later.

I’ll repeat some of what I think I incorrectly placed in the introduction: *
This is a great topic and ripe for community-driven solutions which can really be accelerated with a contest like this. One aspect that is often forgotten is that prevention and planning is key, which others have echoed above. Once a fire is started on the worst hot, dry, windy days, there is often little we can do to stop or put out that fire. If structures were better prepared and fuel management performed in advance, outcomes could dramatically change. Early detection and response is also very important, however it may not be possible on the very worst days, like during the Camp Fire that burned down Paradise, but
it still could play a huge role for notification and evacuation*.

This, I know complicates how a contest is formed, but something we should keep in mind as a contest is prepared. How do we encourage both technology for rapid response and better preparation so that eventual disasters are small enough so that this response can actually make a difference?

There was a comment above about soil moisture. This will affect the moisture of vegetation and ground litter/duff over time, however it depends on the history and both live and dead fuel moistures are often calculated for wildland fire spread simulations. We often say that fire spread is dominated by fuel, slope and wind. Long term drought can exacerbate fuel conditions but is one side of the “triangle” that drives fire behavior.

In terms of conditions for wildfires, it is usually hot, dry and windy! In California many fires occur during Santa Ana or Diablo Wind conditions, up to 70 mph or greater. Fire spread from wildland to urban areas is generally dominated by small, flying embers which fly far ahead of the fire front and ignite new smaller “spot fires”. This is a critical aspect of the problem that needs attention.

It seems to me that one of the most crucial factors is the speed that action is taken. We are all familiar with helicopters dropping tons of water on fires that are out of control… To be able to catch the start of fires will prevent such catastrophes.

@Terence It depends on the size of the fire. Time is indeed critical. If a fire is still small with relatively smaller flame lengths (<11 ft), it is possible to extinguish by aerial means. Typically less than a few acres. Otherwise fires tend to be very difficult to extinguish. Ground suppression is still most effective.

I’ll also echo the sentiments that thinking we can supress all fires, even with the most innovative approaches, is a fallacy. For fires that start under moderate conditions, our current infrastructures of detection and response are often enough, check out the suppression statistics through Inciweb. But the Megafires or the ones that are most damaging happen under the worst conditions, where it seems like no matter what suppression resources we utilize, the fire will spread. There is still room for improvement but convincing ourselves and our constiuents that we can control and stop all wildfires is a dangerous path.
This brings me to two discussion points:
1.) For this contest, I would advise testing solutions under some very extreme fire weather conditions, including very low fuel and soil moisture, hot temperatures, and strong winds. If this was too dangerous, testing under more moderate conditions and then modeling extreme fire weather might be an option.
2.) Is there any option to include another catagory, one that is less about putting the fire out and more about how to protect infrastructue without suppression resources? This seems to be the next move, focusing on what to do when the fire comes rather than how to stop fires from happening.

This is a great challenge: audacious and probably achievable. The competitors will need a comprehensive description of the context under which their solution has to perform satisfactorily. We might want to reflect on what that context should be (how challenging and extreme). Some things to consider [but there may be more] include:

  • Availability of resources (e.g. how much water is available (water main / hydrant, pond, river, lake, only what the device can carry) and how far is that water from the fire).
  • Access to the land (e.g. what happens if the fire is on private property, and/or access by land is blocked by fences and locked gates)
  • Permission to act (e.g. if the fire is on private land, has it been authorised by the owner as a “controlled” burn - how do we quickly confirm this when a fire is detected)
  • Permission to destroy/re-purpose (e.g. solutions might use innovative methods that consume resources on the (private) land such as digging up soil, chopping down trees, draining water out of a fish pond, or cover the fire in a material that might have some side-effects - again how can we quickly get permission from the land owner / authorities)

Under permission to act: It is my understanding that any prescribed burn (in CA) has to go through the fire district of which they are located, follow guidelines given & receive a permit. This info is shared with the fire protection agency in the area in case they require back up.

Ah, see what happens when key questions are asked and key considerations are addressed?

The series of comments following my initial comments go much farther than I was thinking (demonstrating the value of many minds)…each offers relevant facts (about fires) and/or raises important questions (about fire fighting).

First: @mgollner - thank you for pointing the additional key factors in wildfire spread; my rationale for mentioning soil moisture was simply to provide an example of a factor whose role must be considered - especially in terms of fire PREVENTION (@pzazzday). That said, it is good to know that ‘fuel, slope, and wind’ are identified factors in wildfire (spread)…although they may not be the direct/fundamental causes of said fires (this I do not know for sure; I am not an expert on wildfires).

@ssfred - I’m sorry, but I think conducting a challenge under “extreme fire weather conditions” is a mistake…too many things can go wrong! And,doing so may curtail the continuation of the challenge in a reasonable amount of time so as to fight the fire started by the previous challenge team.

I suggest conducting a wildfire detection-suppression challenge as follows:

1] on a good fire suppression day(s)…meaning days when the wind is significantly LESS than whatever minimum threshold speed is associated with rapid fire spread. Probably not the hottest day, either.

2] in a controlled area (to the maximum extent possible), that is, a designated and designed fire area (DDFA) of a given (TBD) size/area, and whose size can be carefully monitored (by the Challenge directors AND the professional fire fighting agency representatives).

3] surrounding by cleared land (serving as a buffer zone for the DDFA)

4] which is also ‘manned’ (personed?) by pro-firefighters in stand-by mode for the duration of (each team’s test run of) the challenge. This stand-by mode can include tower spotters, helicopters (at the ready for take-off) and tree-breaker trucks (with standard fire fighting equipment and water tanks/water hoses, etc.).

Also: the “fact” that we cannot suppress ‘all fires’ is not a reason not to seek out the best /most innovative ideas for fire suppression (even if they are only applicable in a subset of cases/conditions). These innovative ideas can inform best practices in forest fire management. Even if they only succeed 10-20% of the time – that’s 10 - 20% of fires we can contain / suppress (along with the concomitant costs and losses).

@mgollner - thanks the factual content, especially this observation:

"Fire spread from wildland to urban areas is generally dominated by small, flying embers which fly far ahead of the fire front and ignite new smaller “spot fires”. This is a critical aspect of the problem that needs attention. "

I had not considered that, but now, in reflection, I would ask: is there some way to ‘quell’ or reduced the transport of these ‘flying embers’ from their origination sites to new areas (which make ‘hot spots’)?

For example (and this is crazy impractical, I know): what about artificially generating massive volumes of cloud (condensed water vapor) well in front of the fire’s path – not for putting out the fire per se but for damping/dampening the flying embers?

Such a strategy – or other (for prevention as well as suppression) – would address the observations/comments by @ssfred and @pzazzday

Still waiting for feedback on my suggestions and responses to the comments (above).

Also, I would change the acronym (suggested above) to simply DFZ (Designated Fire Zone), or similar (three letters are easier to use/remember than four :slight_smile: ) as opposed to ‘testing grid’ mentioned at the top .

Dear @marz62 , thank you for the feedback, it is extremely valuable and our apologies for the delay - be sure that we are reading and reviewing as we go; we just do not always can respond soon enough. I’ll do my best to respond to what I can.

Generally speaking, you are right, many things can go wrong when testing in extreme conditions and outdoors, and we take this very seriously. However, given that the majority (around 97%) of fires are successfully suppressed and the 3% (which evolve into large fire events) are notably affected by extreme conditions, pose the greatest risk and are on the increase - we believe it should be an important consideration for future capabilities, and thus needs to be tested; We are working rigorously with fire behavior and fire testing experts, in addition to this wonderful community, to ensure the safety of such high-risk testing. In addition, indeed, as discussed above, extreme conditions will include more than the Red Flag weather (low humidity, strong wind), but also the type of fuel (we are looking at a mix of grassland, shrubland, and forest) and terrain (valley and ridge can accelerate the spread).

While still looking into the design, I can say that you are right, this testing area must be contained and isolated, if by territory conditions, structures or previously burned area - this is to be determined, in consideration of available areas. Just to add, that there are certain limitations to outdoor testing in certain wind speed, and we are still looking into that. Nonetheless, there’s a growing consensus at the added value of testing outdoors and in fire weather.

In your suggestions, it seems like you’ve taken most of the above into consideration, so I’ll just quickly respond.

  1. [good fire-weather days] - testing it in winds above 15mph has been pointed out repeatedly as very valuable (due to already existing very good suppression capabilities)
  2. [contained area, DFZ] absolutely, and very good point re response. Currently, we’ve identified by observation (/detection) capabilities, a 20X20miles grid; however, still looking into the grid size as we work on time to response (and distance to travel) - a possible trade-off, given the current ambition to test in fire weather.
  3. [cleared land] that is one option but definitely should be an isolated and contained area.
  4. [stand by team] yes, you are right - for safety concerns, we must be able to control the fire (just in case), and that’s why we are looking at a possible variable to suppression (asking when is it getting ‘out of control’).

Thank you regarding your point on the need for innovation, we’ve also spoken to several firefighters who expressed the need for innovation in capabilities.

Regarding your point on embers, absolutely, a huge problem in the WUI and especially in these big fires. We ultimately hope to evade or at least reduce this difficulty in the future of firefighting by encouraging the development of a capability that rapidly detects and suppresses fire (in extreme conditions), before the event escalates. Nonetheless, agreed, embers - and consequently the possibility of more than one fire ignited is important, and maybe we can incorporate that aspect into testing - the giant cloud is a very interesting idea - thank you for that!

@akb Thank you for your comment, very helpful points