Fire and rainforests - beyond the famous haze in Indonesia – may not seem like the most intuitive combination. Current conversations about forests in Southeast Asia commonly rather focus on problems like deforestation, forest degradation and loss of biodiversity. Yet many of these issues are often enabled or accelerated by man-made forest fires, especially in dry evergreen forests and deciduous monsoonal forests, forest types commonly found in the northern parts of Laos. Traditional cultivation methods, such as shifting cultivation or slash and burn have always played a role in land clearing for agriculture, but with increasing economic pressure and an increasing population, the amount of clearing, especially when close to protected areas, has become unsustainable.
Fig. 1 Location of the fire towers and command center
Drawing from extensive experience in fire monitoring in China, including tropical regions such as Yunnan Province, APFNet set out to support the Lao local and national government in establishing a demonstration site that would use a fire monitoring system with cutting-edge technology to automatically detect forest fires.
Fig. 2 The Forest Eye uses both high resolution and infrared
In the mountainous areas of Louang Namtha, Lao’s northernmost province bordering China, monitoring the surrounding forests for smoke or illegal activities is difficult. While visibility is an issue, even establishing manned fire towers might prove unsustainable in the long-term as difficult road conditions and the general remoteness to settlements make it hard for staff to stay at the towers for extended periods of time as constant supplies of food and water would not be available. Any fire monitoring system would have to overcome such fundamental constraints, while offering the same or an even higher accuracy in detecting forest fires 24 hours a day.
The new introduced fire monitoring technology, developed by China Forest Star (中林信达) and funded by APFNet, now enables government staff to conveniently monitor with each of the two constructed towers a radius of up to 15km2 remotely at the command center right next to a road. This is achieved through the installation of the “Forest Eye”, a cutting-edge technology that uses both normal and infrared cameras to automatically detect forest fires within minutes of any outbreak and directly transmits it to the command center. There, the managing staff will be alerted immediately and can put any fire out safely and early. In order to help staff in the command center to plan the best route for their firefighting troops, the system also offers to designate paths and deploy firefighting troops on the map, which then can be used to coordinate troops on the ground. Both towers communicate with each other wireless and then transmit the vital information to the command center. Additionally, the newer tower runs on solar power, making it truly independent from electricity outages. The old tower and command center, while connected to the grid, have a backup generator that can provide emergency electricity for several days.
While the primary purpose of the system is to monitor the area for forest fire, the Lao participants were especially pleased about the ability to use the cameras to manually scan the area for illegal logging as well.
Fig. 3 Signing of the acceptance documents by the participant
Under the APFNet GMS-Lao project and ASEM-Lao Project the old tower was finished in May 2016 and the new tower and command center in May 2018, thus completing the construction. A group consisting of representatives from APFNet, China Forest Star and the Lao local and national government visited from July 2 to 4 to check upon the final results, which were found to have been achieved to complete satisfaction. Mr. Somkou Singlormany, the Deputy Head of the Project Management Office of Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office (PAFO), expressed his satisfaction with the completion of the project and thanked APFNet and China Forest Star for their efforts and support. In order to make sure the system will be operated properly in the future, local staff received training on how to use the different functions of the system.
This fire monitoring system will serve as a demonstration site hoping to inspire the use of high-tech solutions to prevent illegal forest fires in Lao PDR in the future.