Keeping the fires burning — Australian Firehawks and the threat to manned aircraft

A recent study has confirmed what Indigenous Australians, and most of those in the firefighting industry, have known all along — raptors are using bushfires to corner their prey.

A recent study has confirmed what Indigenous Australians, and most of those in the firefighting industry, have known all along — raptors are using bushfires to corner their prey.

Wildfires are a natural part of the Australian landscape, and many indigenous plant species rely on these natural burns as part of their lifecycle.

For thousands of years, Australia's Indigenous communities have noted how ‘firehawk’ raptors calculatedly spread bushfires to corner and capture prey. A study released this year has documented and confirmed this hunting ritual, discovering that at least three raptor species “act as propagators” of wildfire.

Firehawks— the back kite, whistling kite, and brown falcon— pluck these smouldering grass and sticks from raging bushfires and transport them up to a kilometre away, according to the study.

 firehawks northern territory

The intent of these raptors is to spread fire to unaffected zones, such as watercourses, roads, or to fire breaks that are created by firefighters. Their objective is to flush out their prey with flames or smoke.

Bushfires create the perfect environment for a feeding frenzy, as small birds, lizards and insects become visible to the raptors as they exit the grasslands to flee the fire.

Co-author of the paper Mark Bonta, in an interview with National Geographic, said that Indigenous knowledge was critical to their research.

"We're not discovering anything. Most of the data that we've worked with is collaborative with Aboriginal peoples... they've known this for probably 40,000 years or more," he said.

Contemporarily, however, this feeding ritual is causing risk to those helping to keep fires at bay. But there’s also an added layer — foreign plant species.

Introduced plant species, especially farming crops, are causing fires to become out of control across Northern Australia. Crops are burning hotter than plants that are native to the area, creating these burns to spread further. This increased threat of wildfire is creating additional work, and risk, for firefighters in the area — especially for those flying alongside these opportunistic raptors.

nothern territory fire

Indigenous knowledge is hugely powerful and deep-rooted, and the authors of this study hope that their work will encourage a deeper appreciation of ancient knowledge in modern circumstances — especially so in the face of ever-increasing wildfire seasons and climate change.

"This has important implications for our understanding of the history of fire initiation in the Australian savanna, and for our appreciation of similar large-scale landscape modification processes there and elsewhere," the paper reads.

Accounting for the threat of birds when flying is standard practice for pilots. However, this airspace congestion is heightened when Firehawks are on a hunting frenzy. If firefighting wasn’t hard enough, these raptors are adding another layer of complexity to their missions.

How can we look to keep our Fireys safe in the face of these increased risks? Could UAV be the answer?

Man down

Drones have a fairly poor reputation when it comes to fighting fires due to ill-informed hobbyist drone operators who’re trying to capture a Grammy award-winning shot of the action.

In 2016 alone, 23 cases in the USA reached Federal prosecution status and a significantly larger number of violations have occurred in addition to this.

Like raptors, when drones are flown in close proximity to aircraft, there’s a risk they could crash into the front windshield or hit a rotor blade, causing a catastrophe for an aircraft and for people on the ground.

Fire departments are issuing pleas to stop flying recreational drones anywhere near the blazes, and it’s these hobbyist drone operators who’re dampening the reputation of technology that has a huge potential to be used for good.

What about tag-team approach — between the eye in the sky and the firefighters attending to its data-driven directions?

When used right, drones have huge advantages when it comes to firefighting.

According to Dronefly, a recent estimate by Goldman Sachs estimates the global drone-related firefighting industry is currently up to $881 million.

The primary use-case here is obvious: having a drone at your disposal upon arrival at a life-threatening situation not only allows for people to stay out of harm's way but to do so from an extremely beneficial vantage point.

Drones are being readily utilized in Firefighting agencies across the globe for work such as scene monitoring, search and rescue, post-fire/disaster assessment and in wildland firefighting.

Drones are allowing firefighters to gain as much data as possible, obtaining the best view of the task at hand, before developing and implementing a strategy. They give first responders a clear bird’s-eye view, regardless of visibility or outside factors such as wildlife, while allowing them to remain safe.

In the face of our changing climate and environment, we need to look at ways we can use technology to the best of its ability in order to keep our communities safe. This is not to say drones should replace aerial firefighting all together, but in situations where the threat to life is too great, drones are like raptors who’re on our side.

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