Canadian researchers now tracking wildfire warning signs with satellites

Researchers found that conditions were just right in the spring of 2016 to allow the Fort McMurray fire to spread rapidly. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Researchers at the Canadian University of British Columbia have come up with a new way to predict when and where fires caused by humans are most likely to occur in spring. Between the time that the snow melts and plants sprout new greenery is the riskiest time for human-caused wildfires in northern boreal forests such as those found in the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

It is also the most dangerous time of year in terms of property loss and damage to infrastructure. “For example, we found that conditions were just right in the spring of 2016 to allow the Fort McMurray fire to spread rapidly to the surrounding leafless vegetation,” said researcher Paul Pickell in a news release. That fire was the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history and forced 88,000 people to evacuate the area.

Satellite images show moisture in vegetation

To develop the early warning system, researchers used satellite images of vegetation and tracked moisture in fuel sources like leaves. That allowed them to predict the risk of a human-caused wildfire with 10-day accuracy.

By using this system, Pickell said wildfire managers could have information for most forests before the start of the fire season and then determine where best to deploy their firefighting resources. There are fires every year in Canada’s boreal forests as part of the natural cycle. But keeping them away from property and infrastructure is a challenge.

Pickell says his warning system could be used in North America, Europe and Russia using open-access satellite observations of the earth. He and his colleagues’ findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Lynn has dedicated her working life to journalism. After decades in the field, she still believes journalism to be a pillar of democracy and she remains committed to telling stories she believes are important or interesting. Lynn loves Canada and embraces all seasons: skiing, skating, and sledding in winter, hiking, swimming and playing tennis in summer and running all the time. She is a voracious consumer of Canadian literature, public radio programs and classical music. Family and friends are most important. Good and unusual foods are fun. She travels when possible and enjoys the wilderness.

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