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Keeping lookout

In Faber-Castell's forests in Minas Gerais, Brazil, the dry season lasts from July to December. On-site, a team of dedicated specialists use carefully refined strategies and the latest technology to make sure that forest fires don’t stand a chance. 

A computer screen shows the view from a camera panning over the endless green of a pine forest. On the horizon, a strip of red-brown earth can be seen just before the ground meets the sky, sparsely dotted with cumulous clouds. The camera zooms in over the scrub landscape of the Minas Gerais savanna in southeast Brazil. A thin plume of smoke now becomes visible snaking into the sky. The image is startlingly clear, you have the feeling you could count every single leaf of every plant. “Here, right next this bit, that is smoke, do you see that?” Kelen Pedroso asks. “That is definitely fire,” she confirms. Pedroso is a forestry engineer and is responsible for the protection and management of the Faber-Castell forests in Brazil. This is where 8,200 hectares of specially cultivated pine forest is continually regenerating for the sustainable production of pencils. “The year 2021 is really extreme,” she adds, talking about the number of small fires she’s seen in the last few weeks of October. Normally the dry season lasts about six months here, but now, there hasn’t been a drop of rain for eight whole months.

Our fire protection measures in video

Fire doesn’t stop at property borders

For the last 40 years, Faber-Castell has been managing pine forests in Brazil that alternate with vast swathes of native scrub. Over this period, the number of animal species living in the area has quadrupled. Now over 700 different species are at home in the Faber-Castell plantation areas. It takes 20 years for a Caribbean Pine to mature before it can be harvested, and a new seedling can take its place. Forestry is a slow business. Fires would be devastating – for the flora, for the wildlife, but also, of course, for timber production. “When a fire reaches the crown of a tree, it jumps over in the blink of an eye, and then you lose the whole forest,” Pedroso says. For Faber-Castell, these pine forests are both raw materials and valuable capital in one. Pedroso and her team of colleagues are basically watching over a treasure trove made of wood.

For years, the team on-site have been successfully using a multi-faceted strategy so that these forests don’t burn. From their offices, the team can scan the whole area throughout the day with high-resolution cameras. The plumes of smoke just sighted lie beyond the borders of the Faber-Castell forestry areas. But the team uses a wholistic strategy. They don’t just look at their own forests, but across the entire surrounding area. Because fire doesn’t take any notice of property borders.

A drone provides aerial support

The most important prevention is education,” Pedroso says. She and her colleagues are often out and about in the surrounding area, raising awareness about preventing and dealing with fire – as well as informing people about the fire laws that have especially tight restrictions in the dry season. Nevertheless, a lot of farmers still use fire as a tool because it’s quick and easy, for example, to rid their properties of scrub, or to burn the remains of a sugar cane field after harvest. But these practices are very reckless and one of the reasons the area must be constantly watched for signs of smoke from Faber-Castell’s small headquarters on-site. This used to be a job that would have to be done from platforms high above the trees. “That was an extremely hard job,” Pedroso explains. “It was really hot, and you spent the whole day alone up there.” It wasn’t always easy to tell the difference between shimmering heat and dust or columns of smoke. Now, the only thing on the platforms are cameras that can be remotely controlled with a computer. The cameras are very powerful, and far more effective for keeping watch from all sides at once. A huge part of the area can be monitored with three cameras on one platform.

At the same time, Pedroso and her colleagues also utilise satellites and data analysis. She switches to another program that shows a satellite image of the whole area around the small town of Prata. The Faber-Castell forests are marked with different colours according to different alarm levels. When these are marked red, extreme caution is required. The satellites are even capable of measuring the heat on the ground so that little fire spots can be identified and marked with a fire symbol on the map. “When this happens, we have people on motorbikes who can ride out to assess the situation.” They also have drones that can deliver information from the air. If a fire does start anywhere close by, Faber-Castell has its own fire-fighting force that can spring into action with fire trucks and up to 50 fire fighters.

This system has it all covered

Faber-Castell has given the phone number of their own fire brigade to all inhabitants in the surrounding area. “If anyone sees a fire, then they give us a call,” says Pedroso. This is also a part of the fire prevention strategy. The public fire service in Brazil doesn’t have the capacity to deal with small forest fires. The areas of scrub along the roadways often pose a real fire danger. This is where about 80 per cent of fires start. This is sometimes very carefully back-burned as well-functioning preventative measure.
At the office headquarters where the team keeps watch with the help of the cameras, one of Pedroso’s colleagues has identified the exact spot that the plume of smoke is coming from, and has called their colleagues on the ground in the area. The cause of the smoke is contained. The safety net of prevention, surveillance, and people doing their jobs in each part of the system works very well. Not long ago, a renown Brazilian forestry expert visited the Faber-Castell property to inspect the fire prevention systems. “He said that our system has it all covered,” says Pedroso. The satellite system they are using is normally used for agriculture. The forestry engineer says that before they started using this tool, her team used to have to call up their fire fighters a lot more often, and sometimes they would drive out to the wrong spot. But now, she says, “we’re really very effective and very well informed.