Firefighting turns to technology to get the jump on wildfires
Infrared scanners and computer modelling used to help battle blazes in Canadian forests
Wildfire ranger Dan Gorzeman directed a crew as it put out hotspots smouldering beneath the boreal forest northeast of Slave Lake, Alta., in August 2015.
But he wasn't on the ground. He was hundreds of metres above the blackened bush in a helicopter, staring at the screen of an infrared scanner.
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"These scans show us where these ground fires are and we relay them on a map with co-ordinates," he said.
The ground crew can then take those co-ordinates and pinpoint the exact location of underground fires using GPS.
"The firefighters systematically go through and knock them off," Gorzeman said.
It's a one-two punch from the sky and the ground, allowing the crew to know for sure a fire is completely out so it can move on with confidence knowing a gust of air won't whip up the fire again.
Gorzeman says this is proven technology making a real difference in the way firefighters work in Canadian forests.
Another advance is how the ground crews gets around. To move long distances through the bush, they ride in something that looks like a tank.
The all terrain carrier called a Hägglund easily stores all the gear firefighters need to tackle any situation and rumbles effortlessly on its huge tracks over toppled trees, through thick mud and streams.
Rain made to order
Whether you're protecting the bush or buildings, getting water on a fire is key to bringing it under control.
Back at a fire hall in Slave Lake, Alta., FireSmart co-ordinator Ryan Coutts flips open the door to what looks like a horse trailer.
"We have two sprinkler trailers we call them," Coutts said. "They're set up with 150 sprinklers and pumps and hoses and everything, so you can actually set up a sprinkler on houses."
Coutts and his team drove the trailers 250 kilometres from Slave Lake to Fort McMurray to help save buildings during the massive wildfire this month.
That fire destroyed more than 2,400 structures and burned more than 229,000 hectares of forest.
Coutts said once the sprinklers are in place, they create a dome of water over a building. The resulting bubble of moisture drives the relative humidity up.
"It gives you a better chance if embers and stuff are falling on top of your house," Coutts said.
The trailers were purchased after the massive wildfire of 2011 took out one-third of Coutts's hometown.
Inside the inferno
But new firefighting tools are also being developed in the lab, where scientists are looking at wind and weather, questioning what they thought they knew about wildfire and its behaviour.
At the Canadian Forest Service's Northern Forestry Centre headquarters in Edmonton, fire research scientist Kerry Anderson analyses weather information from 2,500 weather stations across North America and data from satellites passing overhead.
"We enter that into the Canadian forest fire danger rating system to assess what the values are and what the fire danger is across the country," he said.
It's useful information that is then passed along to the public heading out camping or hiking about the level of risk for fire from low to extreme.
They also monitor fires that are burning and try to predict where they'll go next using computer models to spread a forest fire into the future.
A three-dimensional model captures the spread of fire vertically and horizontally and factors in the types of trees in a fire's path.
This desk work is being backed up with experimental test burns. Using water-cooled cameras, researchers are able to capture images of what fire looks likes and, more importantly, acts like inside an inferno.
You can see video for yourself at cbc.ca/ideas.
The images surprised even experts like University of Alberta wildfire professor Mike Flannigan.
He said the winds on the periphery of a blaze during one test burn near Carott Lake, B.C., were clocked at 12 km/h, while inside the fire, they were four times that.
"The fire-generated winds were much stronger than I anticipated and the way the fire spread was completely different," he said. "It was a whole bunch of little spots, almost like raining embers."
It was not at all like the surface fire Flannigan expected to see creeping forward.
Communicating what you know now
While predicting how a fire might behave is one thing, communicating that information to the people you're trying to protect is another, said Kevin Tolhurst, a fire ecology professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
He points to a fire simulator he's helped develop called Phoenix.
It allows experts to factor in wind, terrain and humidity and communicate that to decision makers and the public in real time.
"You can have it all on your smartphone, your computer, your smartwatch. The information you can get now is just amazing," said Tolhurst.
The technology is also changing what firefighters carry into Canadian forests.
Jason Cottingham, an Alberta wildfire management specialist, reaches into the large front pocket of his green cargo pants and pulls out a red book.
"It's our bible. It essentially details how we're going to fight fire," he said.
"It's a field guide of how fire behaves on the landscape based on the fuels it's burning in and the weather conditions that it's experiencing," Cottingham said.
The charts, formulas and equations in the red book give firefighters a sense of what the fire might do next.
But Cottingham admits most of the fighters rely on an app for their phone — basically the bible at the click of a button.