The Fire-Fighting Project - Update

Orthophoto Burned V Intact Forest

Orangutan Appeal UK have been supporting the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) to help carry out their vital work since 2012.  We support not only the team but also provide essential equipment. OuTrop works to protect large forested landscapes in Central Kalimantan, which contains several of the most important remaining populations of the Bornean orangutan.  They do this through programmes of habitat conservation, forest restoration, community engagement and research, with the main aim on protecting wild orangutans in-situ in their natural environment.

The Fire-Fighting Project is one of the many projects we run to support orangutan conservation.  If you would like to support this and other projects that we run, you can donate to the charity by visting our donation page

Progress Report: July to January 2016

Peat fires occur annually and are the single biggest risk to the Sabangau Forest. Fires arise every dry season and are often the result of land-clearing by burning in neighbouring farms, or fishermen starting small fires on river banks. The fire risk has been severe over the last few months, as a strong El Niño has impacted the region and is predicted to continue into 2016. This has placed the Sabangau Forest and its orangutan population under serious threat, created toxic haze that has made local people sick and led Palangka Raya to be classed as the most polluted city on Earth.

In response and with support from Orangutan Appeal UK and our research staff, the local Community Patrol Team conducted daily forest patrols in the Sabangau forest and its waterways for fire, and extinguished fires detected. The team tackled and extinguished a total 13 fires until the arrival of the first rains in November 2015. In most cases, the team were able to bring these fires under control within a few hours, preventing damage to the forest, but unfortunately despite these efforts some forest was lost through two particularly large fires.

Previously, our fire-fighting work has been hampered by difficulties in detecting and monitoring fires, and in assessing the constantly-evolving extent of fires in active hotspot areas. The large size and difficulty of access of the forest, plus difficulty in obtaining good visuals from the ground to assess fires, makes these critical tasks both difficult and dangerous for on-the-ground fire-fighting teams. To overcome these obstacles, and with funding from Orangutan Appeal UK, we are trialling the use of conservation drones to assess and monitor fire from the air.

Oauk Drone

We have conducted a number of training sessions to teach local fire-fighting team members about drone safety and handling and mapping techniques, camera settings and software use. Our first use of the drone was to map our Sabangau basecamp from the sky using the photocomposition software. Reception of the drone technology by local fire-fighters has been incredibly positive and enthusiastic, and they have been quick to recognise the drone's potential benefits for their activities.

Following this training, the Community Patrol Team is now proficient in basic drone handling and flying. These skills will be further developed over the coming months, to ensure that team members are fully confident in drone use and able to use it without supervision.

With a strong El Niño event underway during the second half of 2015 and projected to last until spring 2016, prolonged drought conditions led to widespread peat and forest fires through Central Kalimantan during August-November 2015, when an official State of Emergency was declared. Fires emerged everywhere, with over 50,000 fire hotspots detected in Kalimantan up to the end of October 2015. Most of these fires were concentrated in the southern lowlands, with OuTrop's base in Palangka Raya lying in the heart of the fire zone.

Aerial Image Of Peat Fire

Throughout the fire period, our drone work focusing on using the drone to spot and tackle fires. The first trial use during around an actual fire was employed during a fire event in August 2015, which threatened to destroy the access railway to our main research camp. These trial runs indicated that the drone can be useful in aiding planning for how fire-fighting teams might best approach and tackle a particular fire. Employing the drone enabled fire locations to be determined more precisely,and teams deployed more safely and effectively. In a relatively short time, the drone enabled us to assess the fire's magnitude and establish a fire-fighting strategy.

During September and the beginning of October, the drone was used for both fire-fighting strategy planning and daily fire monitoring. It proved to be a very useful tool for the fire-fighting teams, not only to decide how to tackle the fire, but also to help optimize resources and minimize risks from fighting the fires. The drone can fly up to 700 m depending on the environmental conditions, covering an area of 1,530,000 m2 (150 ha) in only 30 minutes. This is especially useful when fighting and monitoring fires on peat, where most burning occurs below ground. This means that surface flames are not always visible and searching for (unseen, underground) hotspots by foot can be very dangerous. The drone helps reduce this risk.

Despite our best efforts, we did sadly lose some forest, owing to a particularly large fire that started in mid-October 2015. Upon detection of this fire, the Community Patrol Team were mobilised immediately, and were joined by our research staff and additional volunteers from the local community to fight the flames. A fire-fighting strategy was put in place, with several water bores dug to create access to underground water, and tens of local fire-fighters worked around the clock for more than two weeks to douse the fire. As a result of these efforts, the western boundary of the fire was contained and our camp and main research grid were saved, but the dry conditions and sheer ferocity of the fire resulted in some forest loss to the west of camp.

Now that the fire has been extinguished and the area considered safe to visit by the Community Patrol Team, we are currently using the drone to map the extent of, and document the damage in, this burned area. The drone is again proving very useful in this regard, both because of the clear understanding of the damage that the images produce, and because of the ease and speed with which the assessment can be performed, compared to on-foot assessments by observers walking around the area. Burned peat-swamp forest is particularly difficult to traverse, because of the huge amounts of dead and fallen vegetation, which breaks easily when trod on, loss of stability of the peat soil and increased flooding following rain.

Our trials also highlight some challenges in drone use. In particular, the incredibly thick smoke during the height of the fire season caused very low visibility, which on occasion dropped to only 20 m or less. Because we have not yet been able to obtain the ground station and route-planning software, it we must currently still manually control the drone to fly it safely and effectively, which was impossible when smoke reduced visibility to these levels. This has also limited mapping of burned areas, as the distance from camp that the quad-copter drone can cover is restricted.

If you would like to support this and other projects that we run, you can donate to the charity by visting our donation page 

You can read previous updates by clicking on the links below:

October 2015

July 2015

April 2015

January 2015

March 2014

July 2013