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State Agencies Eye Robot for Role in Fight Against Wildfires

The automated BurnBot RX1 tool is being watched by state and federal agencies for potential use in prescribed burns, a pre-emptive practice designed to hamper the spread of wildfires by pre-burning swaths of combustible land.

As the hulking BurnBot RX1 trundled across a pasture at the picturesque Nyland Property, located just outside San Juan Bautista on the Central Coast, it left a 4-foot swath of blackened earth in its wake.

The machine wasn’t running amok or causing wanton destruction. It was playing a crucial role in a prescribed burn, carefully towed by a vehicle akin to a remote-controlled tractor as it scorched a half-mile-long line. The event, meticulously planned for months, drew over 100 people, including interested locals, trainees, experienced fire practitioners and representatives from Indigenous tribes.

Agencies like the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the U.S. Forest Service and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are monitoring its development, according to agency spokespersons.

While it may seem paradoxical, prescribed burns — the controlled application of fire under the right weather conditions — can greatly reduce the risk of severe wildfires. That’s because a century of wildfire suppression across the state has resulted in unhealthy forests that are seriously overgrown. All this vegetation means a glut of potential fuel for destructive blazes, far more than the current cohort of prescribed-fire practitioners in California can tackle. This is why even though BurnBot’s technology is a work in progress, wildfire experts are enthusiastic about its potential.

“The problem that we’re dealing with in California — and really the West — is vast,” said Jared Childress, the program manager for the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association and burn boss for the Nyland event. “There’s plenty of room for other tools in the toolbox.”

California has about 30 million acres of forest; much of this land could benefit from controlled fire, said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

“We should be treating somewhere between 10 times ... and 100 times as much area on an annual basis as we’re treating now,” Field said.

BurnBot’s machine could make such treatments simpler. A crucial part of prescribed burns is pre-burning fuels to set prescribed fire boundaries. To do this, hand crews repeatedly light and extinguish fires, a difficult process known as “blacklining,” which produces hot and smoky conditions.

“You need to have a crew that is very competent to do it quickly and safely,” said Childress, who has consulted for BurnBot. “It’s really tiring to be next to fire constantly and be putting out fire constantly. ... To do it for an eight-hour day would be kind of brutal.”

Using a machine to establish these fire boundaries would not only be easier; it could free up personnel for other critical tasks, like setting flame to the bulk of the burn area, Childress said.

The BurnBot RX1 is similar to a Zamboni machine, performing multiple processing steps as it moves, explained Waleed “Lee” Haddad, co-founder and chief technology officer at BurnBot.

As it travels, the machine ignites vegetation, burns it and then extinguishes the flames. Everything happens within a contained burn chamber, with fans on top of the machine sucking air such that embers don’t escape. Machine operators can also adjust the length and temperature of flames, resulting in efficient incineration that produces much less smoke than traditional prescribed burns.

That means that burns can take place closer to roadways and places where people live — even near power lines, where smoke can trigger electricity to overheat and arc, according to the company.

“People would call you crazy to put fire under a transmission line,” said Anukool Lakhina, co-founder and chief executive officer at BurnBot. “But, in fact, we actually have done that.”

In addition, the self-contained burn chamber and adjustable flames give the BurnBot a wider window of weather conditions for when prescribed burns can be started.

“When the humidity is really high in the morning, nothing burns,” said Barbara Satink Wolfson, a fire adviser with UC Cooperative Extension. By contrast, BurnBot’s machine can start working earlier, before the marine layer burns off, because it produces so much heat, Satink Wolfson said.

There’s also still room for improvement: The current machine is relatively large and isn’t able to maneuver on tricky or forested terrain. The company is also working on ways to reduce fuel consumption and the amount of water used to extinguish flames.

BurnBot is already working on the RX2, incorporating what they’ve learned with its predecessor, the RX1. The updated prototype will carry additional sensors and be easier to service in the field — and be closer to what the company plans to take forward into larger scale production in the next year.

Experts agree that given the scale of treating California’s forests, there’s plenty of room for new tools and technologies.

“We definitely want to be throwing everything we can at this problem,” Field said.

(c)2023 The San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.