Electronic Forest Fire Detection and Management System

(IFFN No. 23 - December 2000, p. 105-108)


In 1994 Digital Imaging Systems – a South African Technology Company – identified the need to replace traditional manned lookout towers with a reliable electronic fire detection system. In October of the same year the concept of computerised Rapid Fire Detection was born.

Technology plays a vital role in all spheres of forestry today, ranging from silviculture to harvesting. Basic things like the chainsaw, advanced computerized mechanized harvesting machines, the GIS and computerized data base containing large memory banks. Forest fires, are one of natures most destructive forces, yet nothing has ever been done to improve detection methods which have remained the same for hundreds of years.

Forestry companies have sophisticated methods to combat fires, including well-trained ground crews, sophisticated foam and retardant, all backed by aerial support from air tankers, spotter planes and helicopters. In certain countries smokejumpers are still used with success. With all these systems in place thousands of valuable hectares of forestry are still lost to fire each year. The major contributing factor for this is the late detection of fires. Ground crews and aerial support teams are only able to do something about a fire effectively if they reach them at the very early stage. They have no or very little effect once the fire has reached a certain size.

Manned lookout towers are as old as forestry itself. The human element associated with these lookout towers is the problem. More often than not, lookout towers are late in reporting fires. Guards have to work long hours under difficult circumstances with only short breaks in concentration. It is also very difficult for these staff members to pin point the actual location of any fire and to provide the best access details to the forester. Yet this antiquated method is still used in many parts of the world. Millions of dollars are spent annually in the combat of fires but nothing is done about their early detection.

Digital Imaging Systems has developed a system trademarked and patented in South Africa called Firehawk whereby rotating digital cameras covering large forestry areas transmit information to a base station where the Firehawk software differentiates between fire, smoke and glow and automatically raises an alarm

Firehawk™ - The System

Firehawk™ is a computer aided forest risk management system that is controlled by a human operator. The Firehawk™ system consists of the following elements (see also Fig.1):


Firehawk’s capabilities are as follows:


Firehawk™ has been designed to be installed in remote areas where cameras can cover a radius of 6 to 8 km from the point of installation. Although the capability of cameras is far beyond the 6 to 8 km radius, weather conditions do not always allow detection of fires beyond this safe margin.

Real time video images can be transmitted up to 30 km. without repeating being required. These video images are fed to a central command base where they are processed and filter out unwanted image alarms and reporting only those required.

During the past six years the system has been installed and tested in various forestry areas throughout South Africa. The first installation was in the Richmond area of Kwa Zulu Natal. This area was chosen for various reasons. Topographically it is very mountainous, extreme temperature changes occur, hot summers and very cold winters with snow on high ground often occurring. This ensured that the system was tested developed to not only work under severe weather conditions, but also be accurate enough to guide foresters to the source of a fire in the shortest possible time once detected.


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Fig.1. Elements of the Firehawk™ system


Presently Firehawk™ is installed in four regions of South Africa, and is continuously being expanded. Forestry companies (Mondi, Sappi and Masonite), Private growers and Government Agencies have committed themselves to the Firehawk™ system as being the preferred system for the detection of forest fires.


In Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal during the 2000 fire season a total of 153 fires were detected. Of these 87 fires were detected at night. Results at the end of the season showed a burnt area rate of less than one hectare per fire (0.7 ha per fire), whereas during the 1998 fire season, before the Firehawk system was installed the burnt area rate was 5.68 ha per fire. This proved that by having the capability to detect fires more rapidly, ground crews and aerial support are able to get to the source of fires much faster, thereby limiting damage drastically.


Contact address:

Jake Oosthuizen
Phone:    +27 33 394038
Cell:        +27 82 4131305
email :


This IFFN contribution had been originally submitted by Johan Venter.

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