How experts use modelling and satellites to predict and tackle wildfires

Wildfire modelling isn't foolproof, but officials say it can give firefighters an idea of how to best tackle out-of-control fires.

Expert says modelling technology has improved over the last decade

Wildfires at night.
Wildfire experts are using mathematical models to predict fire activity and better understand how to attack wildfires. (Alberta Wildfire)

As ravaging wildfires continue to burn across Alberta, forestry and wildfire experts are using modelling and satellites to help firefighting efforts. 

Wildfire modelling allows experts to create a three-dimensional model of existing or historic fires and determine where they'll continue to burn, how aggressive they are, and how certain weather patterns will affect them. The technique helps firefighters on the front lines better predict where fires and smoke could move.

"We have fire behaviour experts who are constantly working with a variety of tools at their disposal, including modelling, and what the fuel conditions are in various parts of the province," Alberta Wildfire information unit manager Christie Tucker said during Tuesday's wildfire update.

"These all have had a large influence on how a fire behaves."

Tucker said wildfire modelling isn't foolproof, but it can give firefighters an idea of how to best tackle out-of-control fires.

"There are always things that cannot be predicted exactly how they're going to play out … when things move very quickly, when you have gusting winds that can be less predictable."

A 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that places that experience fire only every 400 years will experience them as often as once every 50 years.

And the Prairies have not been spared by active fire seasons.

Officials say this year's wildfire season is now Alberta's second-worst on record. The previous record was set in 1981, when 1.3 million hectares burned.

Satellites, mathematical models help analyze wildfires

Gabriel Wainer is a computer engineering professor at Carleton University, where he focuses on creating mathematical equations to conduct simulations of wildfire activity.

He said this technology has seen major advances over the last decade, and that helps firefighters better understand and deal with fires.

"For instance, [if] there is more wind and now the fuel is not grass anymore — it's pine or it's sequoia [trees] — you don't need to burn anything. You just need to modify the mathematical model to learn what's going to happen," Wainer said.

Eyes in the sky are also becoming an increasingly important tool for boots on the ground when it comes to fighting wildfires, experts say. Data from a growing number of satellites can give firefighters ways to predict fire behaviour and analyze its consequences.

The last decade has seen a huge jump in the number of Earth-observation satellites, driven by cheaper technology and the entry of private industry.

A count from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy organization, says there were 192 such satellites in 2014. Now there are 971.

Satellites can give information on things like fire radiative power, a measure of how much energy a fire is emitting. That can tell fire managers where the hot spots are, as well as where the fire is most likely to advance and how quickly.

"Models, simulations, artificial intelligence, geographical information systems, visualization, real-time data, satellite information, plus the experts in the field — we have lots of tools right now to try and help with this," Wainer said.


Katarina Szulc is a reporter for CBC News in Edmonton. She previously worked at CityNews 1130 in Vancouver. You can email story ideas to Katarina.Szulc@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press