Behind the fire: Science and systems for fire management

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2017. You can find a downloadable PDF of the 2017 report in our publications database.

You can also read articles, infographics and indicators in The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2018 on our website.

Forest fire science and management have come a long way since the days between 1920 and 1970 when “towermen” scaled wooden or steel fire towers to survey the landscape for smoke.

Today, well before the first spark of fire season, modern fire managers use sophisticated science-based technologies, systems and tools to help predict where conditions exist that could lead to new fires. Once the season is underway, with many, possibly thousands, of fires burning, they use these systems, combined with years of experience, to make complex decisions.

Fire managers ensure safety with limited resources

A screen shot of the Fire danger forecast for May 4, 2016 from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.
Fire danger forecast for May 4, 2016, Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

Fire managers must decide on a daily, even hourly, basis:

  • where to position firefighting resources before fires start
  • where to send mobile Initial Attack crews to fight new fires
  • how and when to manage a fire, or whether to just monitor it
  • how to best coordinate air and ground crews
  • when and where to issue advisories or even evacuate communities

To determine how to best allocate limited firefighting resources, fire managers must decide which fires pose a threat to human safety, property, utilities and other public assets, wildlife habitat and timber. Safety is always the priority.

The Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System is the principal source of intelligence for fire management agencies in Canada and the most widely used system of its kind in the world. Used to drive fire prediction and computer modelling of fire behaviour, it includes two subsystems:

The Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index System provides an estimate of fire danger across the country based on measures of temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and rainfall. All of these conditions affect the potential for fires to ignite and spread.

The Canadian Forest Fire Behavior Prediction System helps fire managers assess how fast and far a fire could spread and how intense it might become. It is based on data such as forest and fuel type, topography, leaf moisture and weather. Results give fire managers essential information that helps them decide whether, when and how to manage or control different types of fires.

Science-based systems are essential to good fire management

Since the 1920s, fire scientists have gathered and studied data about forest fires across Canada and have conducted test fires with different tree species and under different weather conditions. This research has enabled the development of indices, information systems and models that help fire managers evaluate risks – for example, to communities, utilities, timber and recreational areas – and the options available to manage individual fires.

Researchers have also developed fire occurrence prediction models that forecast the number of lightningand human-caused fires. Fire managers use this information to position crews where they expect fires to start. And fire smoke models enable health agencies to forecast potentially harmful smoke events and warn communities about them.

A photo of 3 fire researchers and their monitoring equipment inside a plane.

The ability to effectively manage a fire depends increasingly on both a good understanding of what is happening on the ground through direct observation and remote-sensing data, obtained largely from aircraft or satellites.

Aircraft with infrared sensors are able to detect high temperatures on the ground and can be used to map the daily growth of fires. Images from satellites are also used to detect heat sources, called “hotspots,” that could indicate fires.

All of these tools extend the fire manager’s view – and understanding of what’s happening on the ground – well beyond what can be seen from the fire tower.

The need for fast and accurate forest fire intelligence is growing

Recent years have seen an increase in extreme fire events in Canada. Examples include fires in Slave Lake, Alberta, in 2011; southern Northwest Territories in 2014; central Saskatchewan in 2015; and Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016. These fires resulted in large-scale evacuations, destruction of structures and economic losses.

With more people and property located in Canada’s forests, and expected increases in both fire season length and fire intensity, the need for fire intelligence has never been more important. (See Learning to live with forest fires.)

Canada’s science-based systems are constantly being improved, growing evermore sophisticated and incorporating more data. This is putting more accurate and up-to-date information and tools in the hands of fire managers so they can protect people, property and forest values where it makes sense and is safe to do so.

A photo of an aerial view of smoke plumes taken from the interior of a fire monitoring plane.

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service. Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, Fire monitoring, mapping, and modeling (Fire M3) Frequently Asked Questions.  (accessed May 3, 2017).

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service. Fire management.

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service. The forest fire danger rating tool.

Past Forward Heritage Limited. 2003. A look at fires, firefighting, and old lookout towers.

Wulder, M.A., Hall, R.J., et al. 2005. Remote sensing and GIS in forestry. In Remote Sensing for GIS Managers. Aronoff, S. (ed.). Chapter 12 (pp. 351–356). ESRI Press, Redlands, CA.

  • The Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System has been fully implemented in parts of the U.S. and New Zealand; and components are used in Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Fiji, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Photo credits
  • Fire monitoring and smoke plume photos courtesy of Bo Lu.