Orbiting for smoke

Fire-detection satellites may have
profound effects on managing wildfire

Extreme conditions make the difference with fire behaviour.  (Cole Buhler)

By Nikita Case

‘IF YOU’RE FIGHTING a fire, you need the information today. If it’s after the first hour, it’s like yesterday’s news: no good.”

In other words, says Mike Flannigan, director of wildland fire science at the University of Alberta, timely information is critical in managing forest fires.

Since 2018, there have been 15,031 wildfires in Canada, with more than 4 million hectares burned. 

Extreme conditions make a difference in fire behaviour, Flannigan says. Fires are worth fighting if they threaten communities, but remote blazes can be monitored and managed, and allowed to burn out.

‘Since 2018, there have been 15,031
wildfires in Canada’

“There’s unwanted fires that burned down communities, but for much of our forests in Canada, they’re natural and, at times, beneficial. We want to monitor and manage the fire.”

The world is experiencing more hot, dry, and windy weather because of climate change. This has lengthened the fire season in Alberta by a month. The season now begins March 1.

A Canadian company called 4pi Lab is building a satellite that would detect heat signatures to locate small wildfires – less than  100 metres in size – from space. The technology would also monitor a fire’s growth and intensity, so authorities can decide whether to fight it or let it burn.

Had this satellite been in space during the 2016 Horse River wildfire that set Fort McMurray aflame, the results could have been different.

“Additional timely information – extremely useful,” Flannigan says.

Fire captain Jay Hoffos, who fought in the Fort McMurray fire, says “using a satellite that would be able to pick up those heat signatures for fire would be amazing.” 

But Hoffos says it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Fires with extreme conditions are generated by dry and windy conditions, so early detection is key to prevent growth.  

‘This detection technology would locate fires
and monitor their growth and intensity

“The detection of the fire is one part, but then getting resources to it fast enough to mitigate it is another issue,” Hoffos says.  

Wildfire are expensive. Management costs are currently averaging $800 million to $1.5 billion annually.

The Fort McMurray wildfire cost more than $9 billion. The fire wasn’t detected until it was two hectares in size, which a four-person crew can manage. Any larger and back-up is required.

(However hot, dry and extremely windy conditions changed the rules for that fire.)

“If we can’t detect the fire that soon, then the fire becomes bigger and it’s beyond our resource capability – we’re already into an expanded attack situation,” says Quentin Spila, Alberta’s acting director of wildlife operations. 

Saskatchewan, which has far less forest than Alberta, already uses the satellite MODIS (moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer) to locate fires, but it can only see them when they’re 40 to 50 hectares in size.

In this province, with its abundant timber, oil and gas, has no such luxury, and the wildfire vigil must be constant.

“In my opinion, the future will be satellites,” Spila says. (Cole Buhler)

Satellites aren’t cheap, but neither is fighting wildfires. The website for 4pi Lab says the cost of development and annual operation of their satellites will cost less than the annual national fire-management budget of $151.2 million.

So far, 4pi Lab has only one satellite in production, which won’t make a large impact in detecting wildfires. The company’s goal is to  build a fleet of satellites – around 20 – which would monitor the entire planet.

The idea is to have constant monitoring.

“If it’s scheduled to go over at noon and midnight, we have 12 hours that there could be a potential start that we’re not knowing,” Spila says. “You need the satellite to be over Alberta longer. That’s going to cost a lot.”

Unfortunately, cost over-runs and supply chain issues have delayed the project, and there is no expected release date yet. 

The impact of fires extends far beyond property damage. Wildfires affect wildlife, air quality, natural resources, and economies.

“Utilizing a satellite that has some level of capability would be remarkable in pinpointing areas where it’s heating up,” Hoffos says. 


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