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Province to add more tools to wildland firefighting kit

Sturgeon County Fire Chief Pat Mahoney said they have upgraded their drone capabilities this year.

New wildfire technology has sparked up in the province this fire season and Sturgeon County Fire Chief Pat Mahoney said even they have upgraded their drone capabilities this year.

“The new drone that we did upgrade to has a thermal imaging camera on it. So, if we get a reported grass wildland-type fire – if we can get that drone up in the air – it'll help us plan our attack,” said Mahoney.

In May the province announced new wildfire technologies that will be integrated into how the province manages wildfires. The technologies include gel water enhancer systems that act as a fire suppressant, artificial intelligence (AI) that may aid in fire detection, and drones that are able to fly at night and do surveillance on where fires are and where they are expected to grow.

Sturgeon County is responsible for their own fire suppression, so the provincial announcement won’t necessarily be immediately applicable to the area, but once the technologies advance, they may be used as another tool in firefighting strategies across the province.

Mahoney said the drone the municipality got will help after a fire has been contained. The thermal imaging allows them to hone-in on hotspots, thus saving time and energy to fight a fire.

Michael Benson is wildfire operations manager with FPInnovations, a not-for-profit private research group based out of Edmonton. The company is closely partnered with the government and other wildfire agencies and specializes in research in wildfire operations and wildfire technology development.

He said the drones currently being used in Alberta associate heat signature with a geospatial location.

“They go out, they find out where the fire is, where the hotspots are, and then they're able to associate that with maybe a position on a map, for example,” he explained.

Firefighters are then able to take that information and plan based on hotspots, saving time and resources.

Benson is exploring is the use of drones at night when human-piloted aircraft are less likely to be out.

“During our research, these drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems, will be using full-motion video and infrared cameras to be able to gather intelligence around the fire, and then commute it back to the incident command team … We're going to be assessing how the drones are being able to provide that information to help inform decision-makers on how they should be undertaking their suppression efforts,” he said.

Alberta has a multi-modality approach to wildfire detection which includes human reports, air patrols, satellite sensing, and security systems with cameras mounted to towers and screens to monitor what those cameras are capturing.

FPInnovations is researching the use of cameras and associating them with AI.

The cameras would capture images and a computer program would, in theory, look at the imagery, detect smoke, and flag it as a potential fire.

“We're hoping to support the private sector to train algorithms to be able to process these images immediately, and then as well to alert us if there's smoke in their field of view,” said Benson.

There are, however, some challenges with the programming of AI.

“You need to be able to have (AI) distinguish between cloud or fog – which humans confuse with smoke all the time. It needs to be able to discern a difference between that and a difference between dust when a vehicle is traveling up the dusty road.

“The AI has to be able to distinguish between that or flare or smokestack or something like that from industrial activity. Otherwise, they'll just have alarms that are going off all the time and that does not provide value to a wildfire management agent. If we have a fire everywhere, it just doesn't help,” he said.

The AI project is only just getting started and Benson is not expecting there to be any information on it until at least the end of next summer.

“If the technology proves itself out to be very effective and it's cost-effective, then I think that can make a real difference for any wildfire agency. The faster you can detect fires, and then respond to the unwanted ones, you're going to reduce the costs of responding … the faster you can get that rapid response, then the higher the likelihood of being successful in stopping that wildfire in a short period of time while limiting damages,” he said.

Benson said despite new technologies and their development, the basics of wildfire suppression techniques haven’t and likely won’t change.

“Combustion relies on three components. It's called the fire triangle: oxygen, heat, and fuel. If you can remove one of those components, then a fire cannot propagate. So, wildfire response techniques focus on these elements,” he said.

Statistics from Wildfire Alberta show that 80 per cent of wildfires are started by humans.

“If you can take a 50-per-cent bite out of the fires, I mean, wow, is that ever a game-changer. There's nothing we can do about the lightning. But if we can impact the human cause side of the equation, then we really can make a fundamental difference,” said Benson.

Currently, there aren’t any fire restrictions in the St. Albert area, and the heat wave we saw just over a week ago may or may not contribute to fire danger. Benson said it’s a bit more complex than just temperature. The moisture content of fuels such as brushes, trees, and grass, as well as wind, play a big factor.

“If I was considering going out and burning a pile in my backyard and it was legal to do so, I would be very cautious about doing so on those days where it's hot, where the humidity is low, so that means that the air is dry, and that the wind is high, and your fuels are dry. That is kind of your recipe for things going wrong.”