Fighting fire with knowledge

For a province with a land mass of 95 million hectares – 84 million hectares of which are covered in trees – to suggest fighting forest fires is of the utmost importance would be a gross understatement.

But since 1912, the British Columbia Forest Service (BCFS) has prided itself on preventing and extinguishing the estimated 3,000 forest fires that scorch B.C.’s forests each year. The BCSF’s protection program – the division tasked with wildfire prevention and suppression – have a new weapon in their arsenal to sniff out potential hot spots before they erupt into a full-fledged blaze.

WeatherPro3 (WP3), developed by Fredericton, N.B.-based Remsoft Inc., is a Windows-based weather data management program which collects data from remote weather stations and creates timely and useful information in the form of graphs and charts.

Judi Beck, leader of fire sciences with the BCSF’s protection program in Victoria, described the software as a “wonderful thing”.

“It’s a simple graphical interface,” she said. “It certainly makes our job much easier.”

WP3 compliments the BCSF’s network of weather stations and other software programs operated by a team of weather specialists to ensure fire crews on the ground have the most accurate fire and weather data, forecasts, topographical information, and fire behaviour predictions.

“In terms of understanding fire behaviour…we can take information and get a more sophisticated reading on how a fire is moving, how hot it is, what its direction is,” she explained. “We can then convey this information immediately to our ground crews who are in direct contact with us.”

In addition to WP3, Remsoft’s other software offering – FBP97, a computerized version of the Canadian Forest Fire Behaviour Prediction (FBP) System – uses terrain, fuel, wind, time and other user-specified conditions to provide predictions of forest fire behaviour. FBP97 is currently employed by nearly every fire fighting agency and forestry university in Canada.

“Both are stand-alone products but they do work together nicely,” said Ugo Feunekes, Remsoft’s vice-president of research and development. “In the forest fire world, no one has time to sit down and tinker with a computer or a piece of software. There’s a lot of improvements (in the current version of WP3) – WeatherPro3 can automate several tasks.”

How it works

The BCSF’s six fire centres around the province use WP3 to capture data from weather stations and then calculate fire and weather codes and indices, which help determine the likelihood of a fire igniting somewhere. When a fire does break out – most often the result of wayward lightning strikes or human carelessness – the software will evaluate how hot it will burn, how quickly the blaze will spread, the direction it most likely is headed, and what is required to effectively extinguish the inferno.

The information is illustrated in a graph or report form and issued as a fire behaviour advisory or warning. The advisory is subsequently dispatched via facsimile, radio transmission, and e-mail to fire managers who then determine the safest and most effective means for combating the fire or, as in extreme cases, for getting out of the way.

Dr. Ian Methven, director, Centre for Property Studies and dean emeritus of the forestry and environmental management program at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton, said a successful forest protection and fire suppression system requires the ability to predict fire occurrence and behaviour.

“Fire behaviour is a function of weather,” he said. “Fire occurrence depends on risk and hazard. The state and condition of the fuels involves type, structure, distribution, piece size and most importantly, moisture content. This is controlled by weather – past, present and future.”

Methven – a nationally recognized expert in fire behaviour – said WP3 converts basic weather data into valuable, graphically displayed fire information that can be readily assimilated in real and forecast time.

“WeatherPro3 at its most basic takes weather data and converts it into fuel moisture index and fire danger rating information that can be geographically referenced and graphically displayed,” he explained. “It can also generate this information within a historical context to provide knowledge of trends and patterns and use forecast weather to predict future fuel moisture codes and fire danger rating indexes. I might add that is it elegantly programmed and constructed and it is adaptable to a number of national systems.”

While the latest version of Remsoft’s software is not directly employed at UNB, Methven said earlier renditions of WP3 are used as an educational tool.

“WeatherPro3 is not used directly in teaching because it is a sophisticated operational tool,” he said. “Earlier and simpler versions are used in education to allow students to play ‘what if’ scenarios and develop an understanding of the link between weather, fuel and fire behaviour.”

Big Time relief

As much of a welcome relief WeatherPro3 and FBP97 are to the modern day BCSF, one can only imagine the euphoria it would have brought their beleaguered brethren back in the early 1900s.

The BCSF implemented WP3 in autumn 1999. Prior to that, Beck said the modus operandi was more time consuming, using computer tools to gather data and assemble data whereas WP3 automates those functions.

“The real advantage here is the graphical element and the ability to look at our weather data and compare it historically,” she said. “For instance, the 1998 season was real bad for drought, using that, we can see how this year is shaping up. It also makes it easier to explain (the data) to our staff.”

Methven said the main causes behind forest fires are human behaviour and lightning. Humans ignite about 10,000 fires each year.

“However, lightning fires dominate when it comes to areas burned since many of them are ignited in more isolated areas,” he remarked. “Areas burned (in Canada) fluctuates widely from under 1 million to over 7 million hectares per year because of differences in weather from year to year.”