Edmonton·Video

Where there's smoke, there's these Edmonton wildfire researchers

Dan Thompson grabs a handful of pine needles, a few twigs, a clump of dry grass and starts a fire. It doesn't take much.

‘What we really have here is more than a hundred people who live and breathe Canada’s forest everyday’

Check out the wildfire science going on at the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, Alta. 2:53

Dan Thompson grabs a handful of pine needles, a few twigs, a clump of dry grass and starts a fire. It doesn't take much.

"In this lab, what we're able to do is recreate some parts of what a natural forest fire looks like," says Thompson, a researcher in the burn lab at the Canadian Forest Service headquarters in Edmonton.

He notes how quickly the flame takes off as sensors and an infrared camera capture data on the amount of smoke produced.

Thompson, dressed in a blue fireproof lab coat, predicts smoke will once again be top of mind this summer.

"Everybody in Edmonton breathes in that smoke that we had the last two years that came from British Columbia. Many of us had ruined vacations or threatened family and vacation homes there."

The view across the North Saskatchewan River in August 2018 as smoke from wildfires in British Columbia blankets Edmonton. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Thompson believes the work he and his colleagues are doing will help fine tune air-quality forecasting this season.

"So people can plan and keep their lungs healthier by knowing where the fires are occurring, how big they are, how much smoke they're putting [out]."

More than 100 researchers at the Northern Forestry Centre at 53rd Avenue and 122nd Street work at assessing fire risks, monitoring weather or studying the insects living in the western boreal forests.

Researcher Greg Pohl examines a new specimen being added to the collection of 6,000 insects on record at the centre. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

"I think people appreciate science but they want science to actually make the world a better place," says Bruce Macnab, manager of the wildland fire information systems.

"The thing I think we're most proud of is here is we have a floor of people who include research scientists and technicians and programmers and meteorologist, where science can actually be implemented on a fairly small time scale and helping keep people safe."

Macnab and his team use satellite imagery and weather models to help people figure out where wildfires will hit next.

"It could be parents of kids working out west, it could be people from Europe, it could be energy companies, it could be various municipalities wanting to know what's the fire danger," Macnab says.

Bruce Macnab, manager of the Wildland Fire Information Systems, checks weather maps and satellite images in the operation centre at the centre. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

May is typically the busiest month in Alberta when it comes to wildfire and with the dry spring Macnab and the rest of the Natural Resources Canada staffers are gearing up.

However Thompson admits that even in the dead of winter they're thinking about fire.

"What we really have going on here is more than a hundred people who live and breathe Canada's forest everyday."

A park adjacent to the centre at 5320 122nd St. in Edmonton is home to trees typically found in the prairie province. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

About the Author

Adrienne Lamb is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. She's the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. Adrienne has spent the last couple of decades telling stories across Canada.

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