Improving Canada’s wildfire response capabilities

With decades of population growth in Canada, more and more people are starting to live, work, and play in heavily forested areas. Estimates from the Canadian Forest Service suggest that “approximately 12.3% of the Canadian population currently live in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which includes 32.1% of the on-reserve First Nations population”. This exposure to heavily forested areas combined with climate change and the ever-increasing wildfire risk place millions of human lives in danger. In 2021 wildfire season, British Columbia alone experienced over 300 active wildfires at the height of the wildfire season, with a final tally of 1,642 wildfires, 181 evacuation orders, 304 evacuation alerts, and 869,279 hectares burned.

A significant portion of time, resources, and money spent by a wildfire agency is dedicated towards wildfire response. Therefore, optimizing and maximizing the effectiveness of response activities and strategies is of great importance. Incremental gains in response activities can have a compounding positive effect on the outcome of their response efforts.

FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group partners with wildfire agencies across Canada to conduct operational research on wildfires. Among the several themes of research, a considerable component of the work performed looks at improve two key aspects of wildfire response – (1) aviation and wildfire chemicals, and (2) technology and innovation in equipment.

Aviation and wildfire chemicals

Aviation assets such as helicopters and airtankers are expensive but extremely effective tools used by wildfire agencies to respond to wildfires. The main objective of aviation assets is to slow down the growth of a wildfire by dropping water, water-based products, or retardants on or ahead of the wildfire. This is done so that ground crews can safely and effectively suppress and extinguish the wildfire. Due to the tremendous expense involved in the procurement, maintenance, and operation of aviation assets, marginal gains in performance and effectiveness can result in significant cost savings.

One avenue explored by the Wildfire Operations Research group to optimize the use of aviation assets is in the domain of wildfire chemicals (i.e., water-based products). Wildfire chemicals are additives to water that can potentially help improve the performance of water in suppressing a wildfire. These wildfire chemicals improve the drop characteristics of water, thereby offering efficacies in operations.

At FPInnovations, only wildfire chemicals that are supported through the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) qualification process are studied. Canadian wildfire agencies only use those products that adhere to the USFS safety and performance standards. FPInnovations researchers break down the various characteristics of these wildfire chemicals to see which ones are most effective. First, the wildfire chemicals are evaluated for their performance in a laboratory setting. Simultaneously, rheological properties of these wildfire chemicals such as viscosities and response to water hardness are assessed. Once laboratory results are in, FPInnovations researchers transition to field testing of wildfire chemicals from aviation assets. In 2020, a series of field evaluation of drop characteristics in open-field and forested-stand settings were conducted from Sikorsky S-61 ‘heavy’ helicopters.

Environmental considerations

The wildfire chemicals used in aviation response operations undergo a rigorous vetting process conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. Each wildfire chemical is put through a gamut of tests – ranging from corrosion to environmental impacts (mammalian and aquatic toxicity, ecological risk assessments, etc.). This process can take up to two years for qualification and approval for use from aviation assets.

The goal of FPInnovations’ aviation research is to provide wildfire agencies with the best knowledge to optimize the use of their aviation assets. Effective response from aviation assets results in a variety of positive impacts – improved fire suppression, reduced response costs and damages, as well as greater safety for first-responders and consequently the public.

Technology and innovation in equipment

While the fundamentals of fighting wildfires haven’t changed, advances in technology and innovation in equipment have allowed FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group to identify opportunities for agencies to incorporate enabling technologies into their operations. The research group keeps abreast of the latest developments in equipment technology, assess their value, and tests them in an operational environment to assess their efficacy. In conjunction with the Government of Alberta, the group recently conducted several operational trials of high-volume water delivery systems in peat fires, used remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) for night-time intelligence gathering, and explored hazard mitigation efforts using ground-applied water-enhancers. Ongoing research trials involve the use of advanced thermal imaging cameras to study the heat output from fires, LiDAR from RPAS to collect fuel inventory data around communities, and custom-built lapse rate sensors to detect wildfire blowups.

The Wildfire Operations Research group works on behalf of government agencies to be the first to trial new technology and innovation in an operational environment, assess their efficacy, and deliver key information on their value to a wildfire response agency.

For more information, contact Razim Refai, Researcher in FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group.