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Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Germany turns to tech to fight climate change-driven wildfires

As climate change escalates the frequency and intensity of wildfires, Germany is increasingly relying on high-tech early warning systems to snuff out flames before they have the chance to spread.

ZOSSEN, Germany (CN) — Planes and helicopters dumping water on blazing wildfires, firefighters toiling on the ground for weeks to contain their spread — these are scenes many Germans associate with North America or southern Europe. But increasingly, they're also becoming familiar scenes at home due to climate change.

And while the battle against wildfires is still largely played out by firefighters on the ground, German officials are hopeful that they can gain the upper hand far from the flames themselves.

It's a shift that Raimund Engel, the eastern German state of Brandenburg's wildfire mitigation officer, has seen firsthand in his 15 years on the job.

"I've certainly noticed a difference. We can't influence the number of wildfires. But when looking at the long-term statistics, we can at least see that since we've set up our early detection system, we've managed to catch many fires before they have a chance to get big," he told Courthouse News.

A long row of PC monitors adorn a conference table spanning an entire room. The only source of light is the muted brightness spilling in from an overcast day through the windows and the cool glow of computer screens.

Though this looks like it could be a coding room at a tech startup, it's actually part of the state forestry facilities in Brandenburg, 30 miles outside of Berlin. It's also home to the future of forest firefighting.

Here, staff spend shifts closely monitoring an automated early wildfire detection system capable of picking out a 300-square-foot billow of smoke from 12 miles away.

"The human eye just can't do that. Even with binoculars, it's not happening," Engel told Courthouse News.

That's an important capability, given forest-fire surveillance was long dependent on people tucked away in towers deep in the woods, hoping to catch an early glimpse of smoke in the distance through their binoculars.

Engel recounted a tradition of forest-fire prevention in the region that dates back over a century to an early system of towers in Prussia. These days it all happens in two offices. The expanded network of towers erected in East Germany during the Cold War now sits empty, many of them topped by the sensors.

"We don't have anyone on the towers. We've switched entirely to the sensors. Those days are over, though I think a couple of those working here today used to work in the towers," said Engel.

Spotting wildfires has a long tradition in the region for a reason. Brandenburg has seen more woodland engulfed by wildfire in the last three years than any other German state.

According to Engel, a combination of dry air, relatively high wind and sandy soil that's incapable of holding moisture make the 1.1 million hectares of forest, or 37% of the state's land, particularly fire prone.

This year has been fairly cool and wet, and only 81 wildfires have been recorded by mid-June. By this time in 2022, a particularly dry year that saw more than 3,000 hectares burned throughout the country — nearly half of which was in Brandenburg — the eastern state encircling Berlin had suffered 196.

Regardless of the weather, Brandenburg is well prepared. One hundred and five automated 'Firewatch' sensors take continuous 360-degree footage of the state's forests, searching for smoke. They're equipped with AI that helps distinguish between smoke, clouds and dust.

Continuous footage is sent to the wildfire headquarters in Zossen and Eberswalde, where teams of up to six sift through footage, double-checking suspected smoke and prepared to relay information to firefighters.

Brandenburg's Wildfire Mitigation Officer Raimund Engel working at his office in Zossen, Germany. Saturday, July 15, 2024. (Courthouse News/Dave Braneck)

While fighting forest fires in Brandenburg is solely the duty of the state's fire departments, surveillance provided under the watchful robotic eye of Engel and his staff provides critical support. According to Engel, it's not just about recognizing fires before they're too large to control; the bird's-eye view is an important tool in actually putting them out.


"The lead firefighter is down on the ground, where all you can see is smoke. It's impossible to get an overview. At the same time, we can get a clear picture of things, even at a great distance," he said.

Brandenburg adopted early versions of the sensors in the mid-2000s, then modernized and expanded their wildfire surveillance system in 2021 to adapt to the intensifying demands of climate change. Updating the system, which was partially financed by the EU, cost 4.2 million euros.

More regions at risk

It's not just the usual hot spots like Brandenburg that have been forced to adapt.

"It's quite rare to see major fires in highlands (like Harz), it just didn't really happen in the past," Roland Pietsch told Courthouse News. Pietsch is the director of the Harz National Park, a 95-square-mile nature reserve in the center of Germany.

A series of ecological issues, all compounded by climate change, has already ravaged Harz's woods. Like many forests in Germany, many of Harz's trees were logged and replanted as quickly as possible to raise money and material in the wake of World War II. This meant the forest largely shifted to a monoculture of fast-growing spruces.

High demands for water make spruce trees particularly susceptible to drought, which lowers their natural defenses against pests. Dry weather in recent years has seen Harz overrun by bark beetles. Massive swaths of forest have been wiped out by the burrowing insects, and now the park has to reckon with wildfires as well.

"There have been a fair number of fires in the park for years now, but they've always been really small. That meant they were easy to put out," said Pietsch.

That changed in 2022, when three major fires put the park's firefighting capabilities to the test.

"Though the responsible firefighters and everyone else involved, including the national park's administration, had considered and discussed all the theoretical possibilities, being practically ready is a different question," Pietsch said.

Harz's mountainous terrain and the wide array of trees felled by bark beetles littering the forest floor have made fighting the fires challenging.

"Although the fire wasn't that big, it was difficult to reach. All together, (2022's largest fire) took about two weeks to put out, including using two Italian firefighting planes for three or four days, as well as seven helicopters," said Pietsch.

These fires didn't just pose a challenge to firefighters — they also created a lingering logistical headache for those involved in the wider region's substantial tourism industry.

Carola Schmidt, head of the Harz tourism board, told Courthouse News, "It was a real challenge; 2.5-3 million guests stay overnight in the region every year, with roughly 40 million annual day visits on top of that. It's certainly a notable economic factor for us," she said.

According to Schmidt, alerting and directing masses of visitors in Harz's wooded mountains is no easy task — especially given the poor cell phone coverage in the area.

These concerns have yet to give visitors to the region pause.

"It's not as though tourists have said 'We don't want to risk visiting Harz in the summer months because we're worried about wildfires,' at least not that we've seen since 2022," she said. Yet she emphasized the importance of wildfire prevention to ensure it stays that way.

Pietsch said Harz's national park administration responded to 2022's fires by investing in prevention and firefighting capabilities. This included setting up an automated early-warning detection system to monitor gas levels.

"The area has a significant number of visitors during the day. And there's a rail line that frequently runs near flashpoints for fires. That means we usually notice fires quite quickly. But there are some situations where that's not the case, so we decided to step up our technical capabilities," Pietsch said.

Trees in Germany's Harz national park which have been damaged by bark beetles. June 10, 2021 (Wikimedia Commons/Hejkal)

Harz's ongoing battle to curb the beetle infestation by diversifying the forest will also help lower the risk of wildfires, though it's a lengthy process that doesn't preclude further precautions.

"We've seen the risk of fire actually drop in recent years. But there will still always be dry periods, and we'll always have weather extremes — which means fire prevention is always going to be a priority," Pietsch said.

No days off, whatever the weather

Even on a damp and dreary June day, Engel and his colleagues at Brandenburg's wildfire headquarters had plenty to discuss. Sensors picked up numerous potential cases — including a couple smoke lookalikes in the form of the billowing exhaust of a power plant and another at a steelworks — as well as what actually proved to be a small fire that was quickly dispatched by firefighters.

As the afternoon drew to a close, another puff of smoke was caught in the distance. After a bit of back-and-forth about what it might be, the team determined it was likely someone firing up a grill in a garden.

"There will be plenty more of those as it gets to be evening," Engel said, noting that there was a European Championship soccer game on that evening.

Whether it's hungry soccer fans getting ready for an undoubtedly bratwurst-heavy feast, or the start of one of the region's ever-more-likely wildfires, Engel and his team have an eye on things.

Follow @braneck
Categories / Environment, International, Weather

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