Scientists armed with new tech and cool gadgets face off against wildfires

From infrared cameras that detect fires smouldering deep underground to satellites capable of tracking smoke and ash from high above the stratosphere, scientists are taking the fight against wildfires from the forest floor to the laboratory.

From new satellites to artificial intelligence, these are some of the latest firefighting tools

A helicopter takes off as part of firefighting efforts in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park in September 2017. (Dan Rafla/Parks Canada)

This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive. 

From infrared cameras that detect fires smouldering deep underground to satellites capable of tracking smoke and ash from high above the stratosphere, scientists are taking the fight against wildfires from the forest floor to the laboratory.

As the threat of wildfires increases with the arrival of more extreme weather each spring, fire researchers around the world are giving firefighters new tools to battle the threat.

Technology is quickly becoming a powerful weapon against the flames. Here is a look at new innovations at the forefront of wildfire management. 

Smoke from space 

For research scientist Josh Johnston, wildfires are best understood from outer space. 

Johnston, an analyst at the Great Lakes Forestry Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is developing a new type of satellite that will monitor and relay information about fires to crews on the ground in real time.

About the size of a dishwasher, the $50-million satellite is the centrepiece of WildfireSat — a mission launched by the forestry centre in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, the Canadian Forest Service and Environment Canada. 

Rapid and precise wildfire monitoring will help protect communities, Johnston said, allowing crews on the ground to make more calculated decisions on where and when to fight. 

Josh Johnston, principal investigator of the WildFireSat mission, conducting fire suppression effectiveness studies in northern Ontario. (Canadian Forest Service)

Currently, information about active forest fires is gathered by experts who survey the flames by plane, but these daily flyovers struggle to truly adequately track fires as they grow and spread.

Currently available satellite data is often hours — if not days — out of date by the time it reaches crews on the ground. 

With the WildfireSat satellite, crews on the ground will have that knowledge in minutes instead of hours, Johnston said. And no matter how intensely the fire is burning, the data will be at the ready. 

The satellite will collect data in late afternoon or early evening when fires are their most active. 

"We will map it, we will give them information about the rate and direction of spread, the fire intensity, the depth of burn," Johnston said. 

"The satellite will [pass over] right when the fire is at its peak intensity in the afternoon, and right now there's just no information about what's going on at that time of day."

The satellite is expected to launch into space sometime in 2025.

'Patterns we can't see'

It may sound like something out of science fiction but, in the not so distant future, a machine may be better equipped to predict wildfires than any meteorologist. 

Researcher Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fires at the University of Alberta, is working to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) program designed for the task.

Wildfires are all about extremes, Flannigan said. In a dry, windswept forest, a single spark can ignite a blaze soon burning out of control. And with the wildfire season getting longer and hotter each year, old-growth forests are increasingly vulnerable. 

Flannigan said weather conditions can be predicted but figuring out where lighting might strike, and if it will actually spark a fire, is a more complex task.

His AI program would rely on historical weather data and knowledge of changing weather patterns to better predict extreme fire weather — helping pinpoint exactly where the most catastrophic fires could start.

Lightning crashes near the Village of Empress on the Alberta/Saskatchewan border in 2017. (Dan Sigouin/Village of Empress)

The computer will be able to make better predictions than any human brain, Flannigan said. And these warnings will be invaluable to the communities most at risk.

"It's a way to handle massive amounts of data to see patterns we can't see."

After five years of research and development the program will soon be field tested with an AI weather modelling system ready between three and five years from now.

Zombie fires

Just because the flames have been doused doesn't mean a fire has been extinguished.

Wildfires can smoulder dormant underground for months, even through the most bitter winter conditions, only to reignite the forest again in spring. 

McMaster University PhD candidate Sophie Wilkinson, who working with Mike Waddington, surveys the results of an experimental fire of Black Spruce peatland. (Submitted by Greg Verkaik)

For fuel, these so-called zombie fires feed on decaying earth and habitats like peat bogs.

"With climate change and increased drought these ecosystems are drying out and because they store so much organic material it's also a fuel itself," said Mike Waddington, the Canada Research Chair in Ecohydrology at McMaster University. 

"If a fire moves through a region and ignites that organic material it can burn and smoulder down into the soil for days, weeks, months and even years," Waddington said.

Wetlands, bogs and swamps once thought to act as a buffer can actually be a dangerous build-up of fuels, he said. 

A wildfire that burned through Fort McMurray, Alta., in May 2016, forcing thousands to flee for their lives, was not finally declared out for 400 days.

A wildfire in the Parry Sound district of Ontario burned from July 2018 until the end of October that year.

"We call them zombie fires cause they can reignite when the conditions are better," Waddington said.

A better understanding of fires is leading to innovation in the field, he said. Crews are using heavy equipment, turning over peatlands to excavate fires and douse them with massive amounts of water to make sure the moss won't ignite again.

Aircraft equipped with infrared cameras fly above fire zones, allowing experts to identify hotspots and relay the information to ground crews.

Frame by frame 

Cameras are also being used to keep a watchful eye on habitats decimated by wildfire and the animals who manage to survive the flames 

Trail cameras can offer valuable insight into the nature of wildfires, how they move, grow and what happens in the aftermath. A time-lapse video created using images from a remote camera attached to a tree during the Kenow wildfire in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park in 2017 offered researchers a dramatic view of the incinerated landscape. 

Each frame showed the time, date and temperature, which topped out at 58 C. The same camera also showed that one day after the fire, a black bear wandered back into the area.

The fire was so devastating, even park scientists were initially concerned about whether the habitat could bounce back, said Parks Canada ecosystem scientist Kim Pearson.

Watch | Timelapse footage of a wildfire from Parks Canada:

 "What was really unique about that wildfire was it moved really fast, it moved at night, and the behaviour of that fire was really high intensity," Pearson said.

"Some of us were wondering, 'Gosh, what is going to happen here?'"

The wildfire burned roughly 35,000 hectares, including 19,000 hectares of the pristine southern Alberta mountain park.

Three summers later, Pearson said cameras around the park continue to capture signs of renewal, offering lessons on the resiliency of its wildlife. 

"Elk and deer and bears and all the wildlife that are still part of the system and things coming back and resetting and reestablishing," she said.

"It might take a little while but if you look closely there are a lot of positive things happening. There is still life in those areas."


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