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These High School Scientists Are Building Wildfire Solutions

Two thousand young scientists from around the world just presented their solutions for critical societal issues at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. We spoke to three students who conducted research and created tools to address wildfires.
By Mary Riddle
Jason Zhao working on the rocket he designed to detect and monitor a wildfires

Jason Zhao working on the rocket he designed to detect and monitor wildfires. (Image courtesy of Jason Zhao.)

In May, about 2,000 young scientists from high schools around the world presented research and solutions for critical societal issues such as climate change and diseases. 

Students can only compete at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair after winning the top prize at a local, regional, state or national science fair. TriplePundit sat down with three of these young scientists to discuss their research and the tools they created for wildfire mitigation and adaptation.

Measuring long-term human health impacts from wildfire smoke exposure

“Here in Montana, and Missoula specifically, wildfire smoke seasons have been getting worse over time,” said 18-year-old Amy Boote. After noticing health effects in herself and her family, she became interested in discovering more about how wildfire smoke affects lung function over time in otherwise young, healthy adults.

There are not many studies on the long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure. So Boote looked for historical data from the Environmental Protection Agency on particulate matter — microscopic solids and liquids — emitted by wildfire smoke. She focused on PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter. 

“PM2.5 can penetrate into your lungs and cross into your bloodstream,” Boote explained. She recruited 18- to 30-year-olds with no history of smoking or vaping and surveyed them to determine their medical history and total lifetime exposure to wildfire smoke based on where they lived every year of their lives. She then tested each participant’s lung function.

“After analyzing the data, I saw there was a significant correlation between lifetime wildfire PM2.5 exposure and decreased lung function,” Boote said. “Capacity continued to decrease with repeated exposure.”

She also noted that more time spent living in Missoula significantly correlated with lifetime increased exposure to wildfire smoke.

“It was surprising that [the participants] were seeing decreased lung function because they were younger, healthier and more active,” Boote said. “They were not in sensitive groups, like being older with pre-existing conditions.”

Moving forward, Boote wants to see more research on mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke, including which strategies are most protective. 

“This is so important because more and more people are being exposed to repeated wildfire smoke events,” she said. “Human-caused climate change is driving the increase in wildfires globally and here in Montana. Here, our wildfire season has gotten three times longer, and total wildfire smoke exposure is increasing globally.”

Monitoring park visitor safety and forest fires with radio technology

“Every year, 2,000 hikers go missing in the U.S., which makes up half of all missing people in the country,” explained 17-year-old John Parsons. “I wanted to do something that can help people.” 

Parsons developed a system of solar-powered transceivers, which are wireless communication devices that use radio waves, to keep hikers and park visitors safe while monitoring for forest fires. The transceiver sits inside a weatherproof box about the size of a shoebox with a small solar panel attached.

“The idea is that when hikers enter parks, park rangers would give them a small device to take with them,” Parsons explained. “The transceiver boxes could be placed in the trees in the forest, and as hikers go through, it records their location with GPS. They can also hit a button on their device if they are in distress.” 

The boxes also contain smoke detectors that notify park rangers of the location of fires via the transceiver system.

The most common methods for monitoring forest fires are satellite imagery or using fire watch towers, but those are less effective at night or in misty conditions, Parsons said.

“The reason that this system is needed is because you cannot build major infrastructure in a national park, but the transceiver is tiny,” he said. “They are unobtrusive to the environment and barely noticeable. There is no visual impact.”

Parsons acknowledged that, currently, the system has a limited range of up to 60 meters. However, he believes that the range can be improved. “I have a bunch of ideas for other improvements, too,” he noted. “I would love to put a small keyboard on the hikers’ modules to encode a message into radio waves, so it could specify the problem and location for the rangers.”

This was Parsons’ first year doing a science fair, and he received the Soumyanath Memorial Award, winning a cash prize for himself and his school. Before starting the project, he taught himself circuitry and soldering using online videos and brushed up on his coding skills. 

Reflecting on what he learned at the fair, he said, “If you have a good idea, work on it. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Low-cost, rapid response solutions for wildfire hotspot detection

“The 2023 wildfire season was the most disruptive ever in Canadian history,” said 17-year-old Jason Zhao. “I decided I wanted to help speed up the firefighting process.”

Zhao designed and built a rocket that deploys drones to detect and monitor wildfires. “The first step of wildfire suppression is identifying hot spots,” Zhao explained. “You need to get an infrared camera above it to make a plan.”

Typically, wildfire hotspots are detected using helicopters, butt helicopters are not very fast and need specialized airports nearby to take off from, Zhao said. 

“Most importantly, helicopters have people inside of them,” he said. “In the past four years, 12 firefighters have died monitoring wildfires. That is the system I am trying to improve.”

Zhao set meetings with his local fire department to better understand its needs. To increase production efficiency, he used 3D printing technology to design and manufacture many of the rocket components. The rocket takes off with the drone inside, and once reaching the forest, separates from the drone, deploys parachutes and falls to the ground. The drone continues on to monitor hotspots. 

“The advantage of my system is that a rocket does not need to take off from an airport,” Zhao said. “It could be stored at the fire department. Rockets are much faster than helicopters. And the worst-case scenario is that you lose a drone, but in that case, nobody has died.”

Zhao has tested his rocket twice. During his first launch in Tri-Cities, Washington, he flew the rocket 1.7 kilometers high. He adjusted the design, and on his second launch in the Mojave Desert, the rocket reached heights of over 3 kilometers and flew at 1.4 times the speed of sound. 

Zhao is continuing to improve some of his system's current limitations, including improving drone efficiency, increasing the drone’s battery life, adding more sensors and instruments, and improving the software to run on autopilot. His project won a special award and a second-place award in the aerospace category.

Jason Zhao stands next to the rocket he created to detect and monitor wildfires.
Jason Zhao stands next to the rocket he designed to deploy drones that track wildfires. (Image courtesy of Jason Zhao.)

Building a global community of solutionists and innovators

While the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of their work in a competition setting, it also fosters international collaboration among young students. Zhao attended with the intention to compete but was surprised by the friendships he built. 

“Going to ISEF was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “I was able to make lifelong friends in just seven days.” 

Parsons’ comments echoed Zhao’s: “It was mind-blowing. It was life-changing. I’ve never had an experience like that.”

And so did Boote’s. 

“It was really cool to meet people from all over the world who had put a ton of work into doing a science research project and were knowledgeable and passionate about their areas of research,” Boote said. “People around me were from Sweden, Puerto Rico, Hungary and Turkey. And people were speaking all kinds of different languages, but in the end, we were all high schoolers who had done scientific research.”

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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