One fire disaster too many: How the Advanced Fire Information System became an idea that saves

The CSIR’s Advanced Fire Information System means that prevention of large-scale destruction caused by wildfires can be set into motion faster than ever before, saving lives, property and infrastructure.

The Ancient Greeks told the story of a bird called a Phoenix. This mythical bird was destroyed by fire, but rose again from the ashes, stronger and more beautiful than before. In the same way, the story of the Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS) and Philip Frost starts with a tragic fire and something great that resulted from it.

In 2001, a terrible fire broke out at the Kruger National Park destroying 45 000 hectares and killing 23 people. Immediately after hearing the news, Philip Frost, a young geographer at the time, started mapping out the fire with satellite data, showing where it started and how it spread. Frost started thinking about the lives that could be saved if the right people had access to this information as soon as the fire broke out. Thus, the idea of AFIS was sparked, literally from a disastrous fire.

AFIS has subsequently grown into a globally used, easily accessible system that provides accurate and immediate fire information and automatically sends fire warnings directly to users via cell phones and tablets.

With AFIS, the detection, monitoring and assessment of wildfires is done in near real-time, using earth observation satellite data.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Frost, “to think that people as far away as Silicon Valley in California are using AFIS is mind-blowing. AFIS has really grown to be at the forefront of this kind of technology, worldwide.”

Frost will tell you, though, that AFIS was not an overnight success. It took years of trying to convince people that this technology could make an impact. “There were some people, however, who stood by me all the way and really believed in the idea. If people like Renier Balt, who worked at the CSIR at the time, didn’t give me a break and said ‘let’s make it happen’, AFIS wouldn’t be here today.” He believes that partnerships are often key to the success of a project. “Great collaborations can get you far.”

With the help of colleagues such as Lee Annamalai, AFIS has become a world-leading, comprehensive fire information system. “As AFIS grows, we get more young and brilliant people on board, keeping us invigorated and stimulated to move forward.”

The AFIS team constantly applies new developments in technology to the system, something they have done from the beginning of the project. As Frost puts it, “When we started AFIS, we were using satellite data to which the public previously had no access. Few had put satellite technology into a useable system before – it wasn’t like now when everybody has access to satellite information through Google Maps. People were wary of technology; we had to break some real barriers of perception.”

Ideas that work, after all, is all about pushing the barriers of innovation so that a bigger impact can be made; AFIS is an idea that works to save lives. It’s as simple and practical as that,” Frost says.

Frost fully believes in how young and upcoming South African scientists can positively impact the future. “Don’t ever think this is just South Africa,” he says. “We have everything we need to become great, right here. Start thinking out of the box and look for new and innovative ways to do things. If you believe in what you’re doing, you can make almost anything happen.”

Lee Annamalai


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