Wildfires in Siberia

Siberian forest, which takes up 1/10 of the world’s forest area is currently endangered. 2 million hectares of forest (approximately the area of such countries as Israel or Slovenia) are burning since June 2019. This fire is currently out of control – Russian authorities are refusing to participate in its extinguishment.

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Enormous amount of land and wildlife are engulfed in wildfires and expert’s forecasts are not encouraging – Siberian environmental disaster is threatening to accelerate the melting of the Arctic ice.

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Russian territory has 1/5 of the world’s reserves of wood (8149000 sq. m) and Siberia holds half of them.

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This means that if proper measures will not be taken – 1/10 of the world’s forests may be gone forever.

Russian authorities refused to help the regions with the fire extinguishment. They motivate their actions by economical reasons, saying that inhabited areas are “not under threat” and “projected extinguishing costs exceed their projected harm”.

If we had cold weather in the winter and there was a blizzard, no one would suggest to drown the icebergs to get warmer.

Alexander Uss, Governor of the Krasnoyarsk Territory

Currently, the problem is that the forest areas engulfed in fires are remote ones.  The firefighters can be delivered there and moved from point to point only by plane or helicopter, but there is no gas station next to them or any infrastructure. Equipment cannot be delivered to these territories as well, which makes such extinguishment a manual type of work. Lack of funding leads to the aggravation of the problem and the fires fuelled by unending firewood can continue burning for months, covering bigger territories until the whole amount of wooden fuel is gone.

Another problem which wildfires brought to Siberia is smoke. Thousands of people have to stay indoors due to the exceeded amount of dangerous volatiles.

Smoke has crossed thousands kilometres and has reached the territory of central Kazakhstan. The population of Siberia and nearest regions is literally suffocating due to smoke. Smoke brings unprecedented amount of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere in comparison to all previous years. Estimated June total wildfire CO2 emissions for the Arctic Circle are equivalent to 2017 national fossil fuel CO2 emissions for Bulgaria, Hungary and Sweden altogether.

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Even though it is not the first precedent of enormous fires in Siberia region, no preventing measures were taken to avoid such devastating fire.

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After tremendous California fires of 2018, fuel breaks (basically – big trenches) around the areas of wildfires were taken as the most effective solution for wildfires prevention. The 2019 wildfire season has been much less active in California than it was a year ago.

Fuel breaks and other fuel modification for wildland fire control can help to diminish the risk and rate of fire spread – prevention is better than the cure.

However, people alone are helpless against the untamed element. Governmental support is a key to stop the violence against our one and only home – the Earth.

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Are You Fired-Up???

For the past semester, the second years have been given a short dose on what it feels like to be involved in fire safety research, having dedicated our final semester to our individual thesis. Curious to learn more about life as a fire researcher, Kate and I decided to sign ourselves up for The Great Fired Up of London on the 16th and 17th of May hosted by Imperial College London. The event follows the inaugural Fired Up hosted by University of Edinburgh in 2018, and is a chance for the UK academic fire community namely post-graduates and postdocs to come together to network, share ideas, and have fun. What I found particularly interesting about this event is that it is essentially a conference organised by students for students. This provided a platform for budding fire researchers to present their work to their peers in a seemingly relaxed environment.

The day started with a warm welcome from Imperial College London which came with a  really awesome door gift (It’s a fire extinguisher shaped portable charger!!! How cool is that?!?!)!!! At the same time, it was weird to see Kate and I representing different institutions for the first time but I guess having an identity crisis is part of being an IMFSE student (but I am proud to be part of Team Edinburgh! And I am sure Kate is too for Team UCL!).

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However, as the conference went on, it seems like institutional divisions did not matter as the community came together as one driven to push fire research. I was impressed at the individual presentations of the PhD students and post-docs which showed not only the hard work that goes into each project but the potential of each project in making a difference to the way we study fire. However, the main highlight for me was observing how the audience, being PhD students and post-doc themselves, interacted with the presenters. There was a sense of camaraderie within the room despite institutional allegiance as ideas were bounced around which I am sure each presenter would take away constructively to further refine their work. Even from our thesis projects, I came to realise that research could be a lonely affair having to work relatively solo on projects. However, even through the informal chats during coffee breaks/lunch, the FiredUp event is a testament that they are not going through this alone and are all in this together!

There were some presentations which really caught my attention. (Disclaimer: These are just my personal highlights. I truly appreciate all the presentations during the conference though). The few presentations by the Imperial College HAZElab caught my attention as it particularly hit home… literally. The presentation by Yuqi Hu from Imperial College even highlighted the significance of their research on haze emissions in Singapore (which is where I am from). It is quite astounding to know that an environmental issue that is prevalent in the Southeast Asia region is being studied halfway across the world. Keep up the good work guys!

We also got the opportunity to witness Jens, a PhD student from University of Edinburgh, present on fire related risks of PV installations. Previous participants have told me that his presentation last year was awesome and he did not disappoint again! Kate even thought it was the best presentation of the conference (I personally can’t comment as I would be extremely biased). It was also great to see how the experiments I carried out with him for my own master thesis could contribute to the larger scheme of his PhD. (I even got my very first “citation” on one of his slides! Woohoo!). Go save the world, Jens! There was also an unorthodox presentation by Benjamin Ralph (or should I say Dr Ralph) from the University of Edinburgh which took the audience out of our little fire box. Instead of presenting his PhD work, he highlighted the insights gained from his experience working as a Fire Safety Engineer for Foster+Partners. Outside the confines of our area of expertise and put in a situation such as building design where we are only a small piece to a puzzle, are we “true collaborators or (merely) technical enablers”? Dr Ralph gave us some food for thought there….

Although we may seem like lost IMFSE students during the event, it was great to be reunited with fellow IMFSE alumnus. Cui Wuquan, from IMFSE cohort 2015-2017, currently a PhD candidate in Imperial College London was a great host and made us feel at home. We also got to meet the IMFSE poster girl, Carmen Gorska Putynska from IMFSE cohort 2013-2015, currently a PhD candidate in the University of Queensland (UQ). (Yes! Our IMFSE associated partner, UQ (though technically not UK), was also present with a few of their PhD students including Carmen presenting their work!) Through our interactions with both of them during the event, it was inspiring to see how IMFSE provided them a solid foundation for them to grow into accomplished PhD students. With the right attitude, all of us IMFSE students are more than equipped to pursue a PhD should we aspire to. We truly wish both Wuquan and Carmen all the best in their PhD endeavours. We will be closely following your development and rooting for you!

I would like to extend my gratitude to Imperial College London and HazeLab for organising this event and doing so with such warmth, as all of you were really welcoming and friendly, making a point to check-in on all the participants no matter who we are. The two days of presentations was really a great exposure into the fire research world. It was my first taste at how an academic conference was like and it helped that it was carried out in a relaxed environment. It remains to be seen where the next FiredUp will be held. Other than University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and University of Queensland, it was great to see other universities represented during the event with participants from UCL, University of Newcastle and University of Greenwich so maybe one them will take up the reigns next year. Either way, I would strongly encourage all future IMFSE students to attend or even better, present your Masters thesis as it is really a great experience as a taster into the world of fire research. So look out for the next Fired-Up and if the time is right, go for it! You will not regret it. 🙂

Graduation Day 2019

This year’s graduation ceremony was like preparation and first-hand experience on what is awaiting us within a year. Every year a few student volunteers help Lies with the tasks during the ceremony and reception. This year’s volunteers were Waqas, Laura, and I. We helped Lies with tasks like preparing the thesis posters, interviewing, counting the votes for the awards, and distributing and collecting the gowns. In-between tasks, we had the opportunity to listen to inspirational speeches from professors, alumni, and students themselves. Especially, the video created by Farah and Kate was so moving and emotional that made me realize that soon enough we will also be saying goodbyes to each other and the program. It was great to see how the program brought together incredibly talented individuals and shaped them to become a big diverse family.

It was a beautiful day in Ghent, sunny during the day and breezy during in the evening. The graduation ceremony, then, moved to an evening reception on a boat with nice Ghent views and good food and drinks. We not only got to mingle with graduating class, but also got to meet alumni who are now spread around the world, sponsors of the program, and professors whose classes we will be taking during the upcoming semester.

This incredible day was organized and orchestrated by Lies to whom we all are incredibly grateful!

Congratulations IMFSE class of ’17-19 and Good Luck on your future endeavor!!!

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Ten Things to Think About Before Leaving for IMFSE

So you’ve been accepted into the IMFSE Program and are now trying to figure out how to pack down your life into a bag. Firstly, congratulations!

Reflecting on our experiences and lessons learned by all the students during the first year, we’ve prepared a short checklist of things to think about as you commence this endeavour.

A common theme to most of the items listed below is to be proactive. Time is your friend; the sooner you think about things or realise problems, the easier it is to work towards an appropriate solution. Being proactive will allow you to reduce the number and severity of any logistical or administrative headaches that will inevitably come up. The best advice is to accept that issues will arise and roll with the punches to work towards a solution.

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It’s important to note that the IMFSE program does a very good job of handling the items which it is responsible for. However, there is a great deal of external red tape inherent in a program like this which requires a diligent effort to overcome effectively.

In no particular order:

  1. Start organising your belongings sooner rather than later. Use coloured stickers to decide what you’ll be selling, putting in storage, giving away and taking with you. This process always takes much longer than you’ll expect, so to reiterate start early.
  2. It’s the perfect time to embrace minimalism, so pack light where you can. Many of us brought suits or formal wear with us which we have not as yet had occasion to use. Perhaps in the second year these will be more useful, however I’d suggest a shirt and blazer obtained when you actually need them would probably be appropriate for most of us.
  3. Make an online backup of all important documents that you could possibly need.
  4. Think about how you will be able to login to services in your home country (banking, taxes, etc.) that require mobile verification if you don’t have your home mobile number active anymore. Also, consider if your home bank sends you sms verification codes for online purchases. Make sure to spend some time to properly think about these, especially those services which you use rarely. These things are often easy to solve at home but, as I’ve found out, almost impossible to solve from the other side of the world if it slipped your mind prior to the move.
  5. Check if there are any national services of your home country which you have to notify if you’re moving overseas (taxation, voting departments, etc.).
  6. If it’s appropriate for you, consider setting up a power of attorney to act on your behalf whilst you’re overseas. In the unlikely event this needs to be used, it can often make things much easier having someone on the ground to represent you if something needs to be handled during your studies.
  7. Ensure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months after you expect to graduate from IMFSE.
  8. Don’t put off looking into any visa requirements for Belgium, Sweden, AND Scotland, especially if you don’t plan on going home over the summer holidays. The majority of students (including myself) only concentrated on the requirements for the first year.
  9. Related to the visa requirements, ensure that you have the applicable documents certified/notarised as appropriate. However, check if the visa offices have validity timeframes on these documents and make a plan if necessary.
  10. It’s never too soon to start looking into Edinburgh accommodation. Accommodation as an individual is simple in both Ghent and Lund, but take this process seriously and apply as soon as applications open. If your partner is accompanying you, finding accommodation can be much more difficult (especially as the university housing departments seem to change their policies on couples year to year).

Bonus tip:

  • Whilst not something you need to be concerned with before you leave, this is certainly one item that continues to cause many headaches for students over the years. Be very careful when posting your passport for any visa application you make whilst you’re over here (especially in Lund). You are required to show formal ID to collect mail. For us, the only acceptable ID is our passport. This is obviously impossible to do if the item you are collecting is the passport. This has caught out quite a few students over the past few years and I don’t think anyone has a perfect solution yet. Make sure you talk to the post office to get their advice prior to mailing your passport away, but (and as incredible as this sounds) it seems that the current solution is to have the passport mailed to a classmate that can pick it up on your behalf.

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To the past and current students, please let me know if there is anything I’ve mistakenly omitted.

To the future students, don’t be put off by the extent of the list above. The program is an amazing experience even with some of these challenges. Just try to think of it as another excuse to practice your problem-solving skills.

Good luck, and for those of you starting later this year, I look forward to meeting you in September.