The faster (the response) the better: The evolution of wildfire detection solutions

Early wildfire detection is key to successful wildfire management operations— without it, the magnitude and the rate of spread of a wildfire can quickly become uncontrollable. The later a wildfire is detected, the higher the danger to people and to communities, and the higher the suppression costs and damages. Early wildfire detection leading to quick initial attack is therefore the first defense against destructive wildfire and an important component for reducing the costs of wildfire suppression. FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research Program has been involved in the validation of new innovative wildfire detection technologies.

Early detection for community protection

More people are living in forested areas and rural communities. Climate change continues to play an ever-greater role in increasing the severity, frequency, and destructive impact of wildfires in these areas. Early detection reduces wildfire threats to communities by increasing the success of initial attack response. It also enables communities to have more time to execute their emergency response plans if necessary. The plans include allocating firefighting resources, notifying and evacuating residents, as well as establishing emergency support services for those impacted.

Early detection for lower carbon emissions

While a natural and essential process, wildfires emit large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Changes in climate can contribute to larger fires that burn at higher intensity, increasing the rate and magnitude of forest land emissions and those derived from long term carbon reservoirs such as peatlands and old growth forests. The intensity of massive wildfires is high enough to not only burn trees and debris on the surface but impact the deeper organic soil layers through prolonged smouldering.

Without early wildfire detection, there is a higher chance that uncontrolled wildfires would burn more intensely and would cover larger areas. There is a direct correlation between the size of the fire upon initial response and containment success within the first 24-48 hours. Early detection can reduce the emissions released during suppression operations through a reduction in fossil fuels used in heavy equipment, helicopters, and airtankers as smaller fires generally need less resources to extinguish them.

History of wildfire detection

Left: a smoke generator that used for evaluating detection systems. Right: the same smoke was seemed through a fire finder from a wildfire lookout from 20 km in range.

Historically in North America way before WWI, wildfire detection used to be performed using ground patrols on horseback. Airplanes were then used for aerial patrol starting around 1920, and most staffed lookout networks were established with in 1950.

By 1980, wildfire lookouts were the dominant method for early wildfire detection. Since the 1980s, the number of wildfire lookout towers have been in decline. By 2015, Alberta was the only province relying on a staffed lookout network as a part of its detection strategy in Canada. The rest of wildfire agencies relied on other detection methods such as aerial patrols, ground patrols, camera networks as well as public reporting.

Phasing out of staffed lookouts was not predicated solely on detection performance but instead, considered costs of infrastructure maintenance as well as changes of labour and safety standards in jurisdictions. In fact, staffed lookouts offer effective performance in finding wildfires and accurately estimating size, rate of spread, and distance. On the other hand, newer detection methods provide better mobility and flexibility.

New age of detection methods

Wildfire RPAS

Luckily, detection technologies have made significant advancement with new innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), satellites, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), 5G and high-speed Internet, smart phones, HD cameras, and remote sensing.

Innovators and service providers all believe that they each have the best wildfire detection solution. On the other hand, wildfire agencies are always looking for opportunities to enhance their detection capabilities. FPInnovations understands the needs of wildfire agencies and has the technical expertise to objectively test and verify the viability of new up and coming detection products.

FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group has and continues to validate the performance of new detection technologies. Recently completed collaborative projects include:

Upcoming technology evaluations

Portable tower with a remote-controlled camera system to assist a fire lookout observer in a blank spot.

This year, the FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group is involved in the Alberta Wildfire Detection Challenge, a collaborative small-business challenge program between Alberta Innovates and Alberta Wildfire, where FPInnovations will be comparing performances of six fixed land-based detection systems. The six systems — from Australia, Poland, US, Chile, and Germany — have been installed on an Alberta tower, are currently being calibrated, and will be tested in an operational environment between the months of July to September. The results will help Alberta Wildfire and the wildfire community at large understand the capabilities of these six systems for future detection strategies.

Application of a smoke detection camera system to support fire lookout operations in 2009.

FPInnovations is also working closely with Alberta Wildfire on an infra-red (IR) grid operation. An IR grid is an area that simulated hotspots can be deployed safely and are accurately geolocated. The goal is to test and certify wildfire IR scan service providers capabilities to accurately detect heat signatures similar to those found on actual wildfires and to ensure they can deliver hotspot detection results in a standard format and in a timely manner. Beyond hotspot detection on known wildfires, this technology has the potential for future use in initial detection of new fires or validation of a reported wildfire. The grid accommodates a variety of different aircraft platforms (ex. RPAS, fixed wing, and rotary wing aircrafts) and ensures successful service providers are able to provide useful results to wildfire agencies when deployed to an actual wildfire.

For more information on these topics, you may reach out to Rex Hsieh, specialist in wildfire detection projects and Senior Researcher in FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group, or to Brandon MacKinnon, specialist in RPAS and remote sensing technologies and Researcher in FPInnovations’ Wildfire Operations Research group.

Access to full reports on topics of wildfire detection is available through FPInnovations’ research library.