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Monitoring forest fires in Canada from space

Forest fires, or wildfires, are becoming an increasing concern for Canadians across the country. To help prepare and respond to fires, Canada is looking upward to space.

Canada has almost 3.5 million km2 of forest, and is home to some of the largest and most intense wildfires in the world. These wildfires can jeopardize human safety, health, property, and ecosystems. As the climate changes globally, shifting patterns of hot, dry, and windy weather may greatly increase the incidence and impacts of wildfires. Scientists project that the current area of forest burned annually will double by 2050 and that overall, Canada will see more extreme and unmanageable fires.

Forest fire emitting large quantities of smoke with a helicopter dropping water on the fire.

Meeting change with innovation

Wildfire managers in Canada are working to address the challenges of increasing fire activity by modernizing tools and policies, but are faced with limitations in current technologies. Enter WildFireSat, a dishwasher-sized satellite launching in early 2025 that will significantly enhance our situational awareness and understanding of wildfire behaviour – and how that behaviour is changing alongside our climate.

Firefighting fundamentals: The “initial attack”

A common technique used in fighting wildfires is the “initial attack.” Used by firefighters in Canada and around the world, the aim is to find fires just after they start, and quickly put them out before they grow large. However, not all fires can be caught at this early stage and the few that escape require far more effort and resources to manage.

The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire was the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, with a total cost of approximately $9 billion.

A bird’s eye view

A critical step in managing large fires is collecting observations for tactical and strategic planning. To do so, an aircraft carrying a fire expert flies over the fire and makes a visual assessment. This information is then relayed to command centres to create a management strategy and deploy resources. It’s an effective but resource-intensive method, and in a large country such as Canada, it’s impossible to keep up with all the fires. This challenge will only increase with the projected future conditions.

Image showing 3% of wildfires cause 97% of the area burned.

New eyes in the sky

In a country as vast as Canada, observation from space is the best way to get timely and consistent information on all active wildfires, with the precision that wildfire managers need. This is where WildFireSat comes in.

WildFireSat is the first satellite specifically built to monitor wildfires, as opposed to the current satellites constructed for other scientific purposes such as determining ocean and land surface temperatures. Unlike other satellites, WildFireSat’s orbit will be optimized so that the satellite will be overhead during the late afternoon “peak burning period,” filling a crucial gap in satellite data.

Fires and other sources of intense heat can be detected, even through smoke, if a satellite sensor includes a channel near the 4-µm (micrometres) wavelength range (a human hair is about 80 µm). This wavelength is highly sensitive to energy emitted from objects hotter than about 200°C. Forest fire flame temperatures range from 800 to 1,200°C.

Artificial intelligence means faster, more accurate information

Instead of human experts flying over a fire in an aircraft, WildFireSat will use artificial intelligence to analyze satellite images in near–real time, providing details such as the intensity of the fire, how fast it is moving and where it is going, as well as smoke and carbon emissions. Because the artificial intelligence on WildFireSat is so powerful, fire managers will get results in 30 minutes compared to the current two to five hours – and the WildFireSat team wants to provide that data for every fire in Canada.

In Canada, annual carbon emissions from wildfires can equal the annual carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels across the country.

As science surrounding WildFireSat continues to grow, fire managers will be able to use critical information from WildFireSat to guide them on the best way to fight a particular fire — whether by ground crews, bulldozers, or air attacks. Experts will also be able to use data from WildFireSat to better predict how long until the fire reaches a community, providing essential information to carry out safe and effective evacuations.

The future is wide open

Canada is committed to open government, and WildFireSat is no exception. All processed and calibrated WildFireSat data will be rapidly available to the public. By providing real-time information during the peak burning period, WildFireSat will help to better protect Canadians, as well as their valuable resources, infrastructure, and the environment.

Sources and information
Photo credit
  • Firefighting a forest fire stock photo by Mooneydriver/iStock by Getty Images.

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2020. Download the PDF version from our publications database.

Table of contents — The State of Canada's Forests Report

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