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10 Strategies for Fighting Wildfires

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Wikimedia Commons

Most Americans know how to stop, drop, and roll. Some even know how to employ a fire suppression blanket and how to properly operate a fire extinguisher. But for the vast majority, fire is something you brag about being able to make out of two sticks, or something you start unknowingly, or just something you run away from—certainly not something you want to have to fight to put out. This is all probably for the best, as battling a wildfire is no straightforward task. The men and women who do run towards an unexpected blaze, and not away, have been well trained in strategies that can suppress the flames of a wildfire. Below are ten of the tried and trusted techniques firefighters use to put fires out quickly, completely, and safely.

1. Control line

One of the most important components of wildfire suppression, control lines are simply the boundaries—natural or manmade—that firefighters employ to control how and where a fire spreads. A rocky ridge or river can serve as a natural control line, or firefighters can establish a manmade one by, for example, clearing out an extended line of brush. The application of flame retardants to such a boundary changes it from a control line to what's called a fireline.

2. Burning out

When establishing control lines, digging a small ditch and pulling up some plants isn't always enough. To create a sturdy, fuel-free barrier, firefighters may use small torches to purposefully burn the brush just inside a control line. A burnout is one of several ways to bolster a control line and further prevent a blaze from escaping the established boundaries.

3. Backburn

A backburn is similar to a burnout, but requires a slightly more sophisticated technique. Once a control line is established, firefighters may set a controlled blaze downwind of the main fire, just on the inside of the control line. Firefighters then push the new blaze back toward the main fire, burning up all the fuel that lies between the fire and the control line.

4. Flanking

For a wildfire small enough to be snuffed out using a direct attack, firefighters may begin their assault on the blaze from behind. Starting from already burned earth, the firefighters will typically work their way around the edge of the fire from the right. Using hoses, the firemen will spray the flames as they work their way around the entire perimeter of the blaze.

5. Hot spotting

Hot spotting is the term used to describe the extra attention given to the most active and dangerous portions of a wildfire. The crew(s) fighting the fire size up the parts of the blaze most likely to spread and try to devise the best strategy for keeping these areas in check. Hot spotting may also involve diverting extra manpower to the task of stamping out embers and spot fires that blow or erupt from the hottest part of the fire.

6. Knock down

Whereas hot spotting refers to the assessment of a fire's condition, knocking down is all about action. The knock down strategy is employed when firefighters decide that a certain hotspot needs to be suppressed immediately. To diminish the section of a fire deemed to have grown too hot, too active, or too large, fighters directly apply some combination of dirt, water, or retardant to that section of the fire.

7. Cold trailing

While a fire is being attacked from the front or side, other firefighters may be involved in cold trailing, the task of combing through already scorched ground in the wake of a moving wildfire. The point is to make sure no hot or glowing embers remain, as leftover coals can be blown around and flame up again.

8. Aerial attack

If significant exposed water sources are nearby, planes and helicopters can scoop up buckets of water and carry them to be dropped atop the blaze. The water is often mixed with a foam applicant before being dropped. The foamed water acts as a more effective barrier to the spread of fire and also insulates fuel that has not yet burned.

9. Fireline explosives

When setting control lines or firelines, firefighters may even use explosives to break up dense brush and hard soil. Explosives can also be used to fell trees whose spread might help a fire jump across a control line. During a large or fast-moving fire, explosives are employed mainly for efficiency purposes, as they can save precious time when firefighters need to contain a fire quickly.

10. Mop-up

It's called mop-up when firefighters go back and clean up along a completed control line. Mop-up consists of dousing any embers and spot fires that have made their way across control lines. It also involves protecting still-vulnerable fuels using a burnout (if they're permanently situated) or by simply moving them out of the way of the fire.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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