Drone images give researchers in-depth knowledge of wildfire devastation, forest regeneration

A UBC professor and a team of graduate students are using drones to collect new information about wildfire behaviour and how forests are regenerating months after the blaze near Williams Lake, B.C.

'This data is like nothing we’ve ever seen before'

Researchers are sending drones into the Alex Fraser Research Forest near Williams Lake, B.C., to learn more about wildfire behaviours and assess the damage done by 2017's fires. (UBC/FYBR)

A University of British Columbia forestry professor and a group of students are using drones to go deeper into B.C.'s wildfire ravaged forests to asses damage from the disastrous 2017 fire season.

Nicholas Coops, who has worked in remote sensing for 25 years, is collaborating with three master's students and FYBR  Solutions Inc., a Vancouver-based forestry image company formerly named Spire Aerobotics Inc. Together, they will collect aerial images near Williams Lake, B.C., an area hit by some of the worst wildfires B.C. has ever experienced.

"This data is like nothing we've ever seen before," Coops said.

The images gathered are helping to create three-dimensional models of the Alex Fraser Research Forest near Williams Lake and the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest near Maple Ridge in the Fraser Valley — both hit by wildfires last summer.

UBC researchers are using drones to examine the impacts of the 2017 wildfires on forests in B.C.'s Interior. 0:36

Coops and his fellow researchers want to chart the progression of the fire, find out whether certain areas burned at a higher temperature than others and determine if any timber is salvageable — all in an effort to better understand wildfire behaviour.

Why drones? 

Using drones is more efficient than traditional image-gathering technology, such as satellites and airplanes, because they produce clearer images. Photos and videos aren't solely shot above the forest —  camera-equipped drones can fly closer to the ground and among the trees.

"It's in such high resolution ... we can see detail that's just not possible from any other platform," said Patrick Crawford, CEO of  FYBR.

"We can see every live tree, every dead tree. We can see the scorch on the trees. We can see the pattern of mortality that we get across the stand," Coops said.

FYBR, a forestry imaging company, is working with the University of British Columbia to learn more about wildfires after a record-breaking wildfire season in B.C. (UBC-FYBR)

In addition, Coops said it's much more expensive to send an airplane up to take pictures. And satellite images are intermittently available, so using drones means researchers can gather information on a more regular basis. 

"We can launch it when we like," Coops said. 

Drones can also cover a lot of ground: between 100 and 200 hectares each day, said Coops.

Using imagery taken by drones, researchers are creating models of wildfire-affected forests so they can examine wildfire behaviour. 0:24

Along with flying drones around and above the trees, students are going into the forest to take measurements confirming whether the drone footage is accurate.

"I see a time when a forester will actually release a drone before they start the harvest and fly an area before they start to put the machinery in and that will give them much better maps about areas to harvest and areas to avoid," Coops said.  "We'll get a much better sense of managing all the different expectations of the land if we have very good, accurate maps."

With files from Jenifer Norwell