On the night of June 30, a wildfire infiltrated Lytton, B.C., engulfing it in flames. By the next morning, 90 per cent of the town had burned to the ground. The devastating blaze, which rolled through the town in just minutes, was fueled by the record-setting heat, dry weather and strong winds present throughout Western Canada.
It is instances like this where Mike Flannigan wished there was a readily accessible extreme fire prediction model and notification system.
Reflecting on the Lytton blaze, Flannigan, a research chair in predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University, believes steps could have been taken to catch it before too much damage was done.
Considering Lytton and its surrounding communities were, at the time, located in the heart of one of the most intense heat waves in Canadian history, Flannigan said fire agencies could have preemptively sent crews and equipment to the hotter areas of British Columbia as a precaution.
“Many times our fires are one-day wonders. Sometimes two-day wonders. So if you get there three days after the call, the party’s over. You missed the big event and when you could’ve been needed, you were still packing your bag,” said Flannigan.
“If we can do a better job on those days, we can help reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fires.”
The June heat wave felt across much of Western Canada was partly due to climate change and an overall rise in the world’s temperature. With the increase of global temperatures, wildfires are expected to be much stronger and more difficult to fight. However, Flannigan, who is currently developing an extreme fire forecast and notification system that uses artificial intelligence (AI), hopes local fire agencies will one day be able to use his such a tool to stop wildfires before they get out of control.
While some believe climate change is a concern for the future, its effects have already been seen with Western Canada’s wildfires.
About four months after the fire in Lytton, Ron Mattiussi was named acting chief administrative officer for the village. Mattiussi, who was tasked with rebuilding, saw firsthand the damage done to the tiny town.
“They have about 120 buildings destroyed, including the post office, fire hall, public works building, the RCMP building, the health clinic, the grocery store, the Legion. The village is pretty much gone. There’s about 32 homes left,” said Mattiussi.
While Mattiussi understands certain areas of British Columbia are known to be relatively hot in the summer seasons, he said something felt different this past year.
“I was in Abbotsford, [B.C.] this summer and it hit 45 C for a number of days, which just doesn’t happen,” Mattiussi said.
“You know, we have worse years and better years. but if you look at the trend, the trend has gotten considerably worse in both the number of hectares burnt and the duration of the fire. I think this year was just the granddaddy of them all.”
In the 2021 fire season, it was calculated that B.C. wildfires covered approximately 868,203 hectares — totalling 0.91 per cent of the province.
The average of hectares burned across B.C. between 2010 and 2020, meanwhile, was less than half that, at just 348,917 hectares.
Flannigan, who has been studying fire sciences since the early ‘80s, understands the number and effects of wildfires are not expected to improve due to climate change. The ones that torched Western Canada are just the beginning of what can be a very fiery future.
“We have research showing us that in the future, the [ignition] fuels will be drier. The fire season will be longer. Fire intensities will be increasing, which means it will be difficult to impossible to extinguish some of these fires,” he said.
“Much more time and effort would be required to extinguish such fires, thus occupying resources that might otherwise be used to attack new fires.”
Three factors will factor into the further increase in wildfires: fuel vegetation, ignition and hot, dry, windy weather. And, according to Flannigan, that trio will be amplified by a rise in the earth’s temperature.
“This means if [the earth] warms and there’s no precipitation, the fuels dry out more quickly and dry fuels are really the engine for fire activity. The higher the fuel, the easier it is for a fire to start and easier it is for a fire to spread,” he said.
Since fires will always be ignited around the world and global warming will only make the situation worse, researchers and scientists are looking for ways to optimize and efficiently fight the flames.
If you ask Mattiussi, fire agencies and governments need to put an emphasis on mitigation over response.
“Somebody once said the best way to stop a ‘rank six’ fire from hitting your community is to stop it from being ranked six before it hits your community,” said Mattiussi.
“I think it’s really important to manage the forest around the communities because we can’t control the drought [and] we can’t control heat waves.”
As acting superintendent of the predictive service unit within B.C. Wildfire Services, Ben Boghean, spends much of his time finding methods to better forecast fire behaviour and management through historical data and advancements in technology.
“There’s always ways to improve and I think we are looking at doing that. It just comes back to looking at where we’ve been successful in the past and where we can look to improve,” he said.
This is where Flannigan can be of some assistance. While Flannigan never had a ‘eureka’ moment, he has had a system for extreme fire prediction and early warning on his mind for quite some time.
Building off already existing weather prediction models such as temperature, precipitation, wind and humidity, Flannigan wants to add his own touch: artificial intelligence. Flannigan hopes to advance the methods agencies currently use to predict areas where extreme fires are more likely to occur.
“That way, when the fires do come, you’re better prepared to meet the demand. For fire, you have to understand it’s all about the extremes. Extremes drive the fire business. The tail wags the dog,” said Flannigan.
Aside from Flannigan, few understand the importance of an AI-based, wildfire prediction system more than Boghean.
For Boghean, the system proposed by Flannigan could be the future for fire management and fighting.
“The better information that we have to help us predict and forecast how intense or extreme a fire may be on the impact on the landscape, I think there’s a huge appetite and a benefit for us to adopt systems like that, if it works,” said Boghean.
When the system is fully operational and ready for use, it’s prediction accuracy will help it stand out from other systems already in use, says Flannigan. With artificial intelligence, he hopes the system can better pinpoint a time and location of where extreme fire is more likely to occur.
“You want your model to be good enough that you’re not crying wolf all the time when there’s no wolf,” said Flannigan.
Once the prediction model is ready, Flannigan plans to share it with local fire agencies such as the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). He hopes it will be enough to catch wildfires before they become too strong.
“Any fire can be extinguished if you get to it soon enough when the fire is small and if you have the crews,” said Flannigan.
As for Boghean and the BC Wildfire Service, an advanced and updated wildfire prediction system would not only benefit the areas more susceptible to extreme fire, but also his staff who combat these fires.
“My biggest concern [is] making sure we’re understanding the impact of responding and suppressing these wildfires on our staff and staff fatigue,” said Boghean. “And by advancing how we can better forecast and predict these fires, we can hopefully mitigate some of those issues around our staff responding.”
While Flannigan is still in the research stages of development, he hopes to see his prediction system functioning by the time he retires as the technology has the potential to save millions of dollars through fire damage and, more importantly, protect those living in Western Canada.
“It’s really important because it can make a big difference in the lives of Albertans and helping protect Albertans and their communities, as well as British Columbians and their communities,” said Flannigan.