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Predicting the future of fires

Allocating resources needed to fight large wildfires takes time, which is in short supply when forests are burning rapidly.

Natural Resources Canada has been working since June on a new program to predict two weeks in advance how many large fires will break out in different fire centres around Canada.

The Severe Wildfire Risk project uses historical data, current conditions and weather forecasts to predict what areas are most at risk.

“Over a period of period of time, 20 or 30 years, we have 100,000 or 150,000 fires, so we’re going back and estimating particular environmental and weather conditions where those fires occurred and then developing statistical models based on past history of the probability of large fires occurring,” said Steve Taylor, fire researcher for Natural Resources Canada.

There are 1,600 to 1,800 weather stations throughout Canada, and the models use this information for current data.  A third input comes from Environment Canada’s 14-day forecast.

Using this information, Taylor said fire agencies can develop planning scenarios and allocate resources in advance to particular areas.

“We felt that the prediction of large fires needed particular attention because they are the largest draw on resources,” said Taylor.

He cautioned that as the forecasts get further out, the reliability of the forecasts decrease.

“We would expect to do better the next week than the following week,” he said.

Beyond 14 days, researchers are able to use seasonal averages to make educated predictions that are better than a guess, but Taylor said that is “getting beyond the limit, and into the realm of weather forecasting.”

In July, B.C.’s premier, Christy Clark, expressed her concern that this year’s heavy fire season may become the new norm due to climate change. Taking into account changing environmental conditions could be important when predicting the future.

Due to the heavy reliance on historical data in the models, this could prove difficult.

“The only wrinkle there might be whether we get conditions in the future that exceeded anything we’d seen in the past,” said Taylor. “So that’s the danger of building models based on historical data rather than some purely physical relationship.”

To see the models in action, head to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System website here

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