When wildfires hit Alberta earlier this month, leaving more than 10,000 square kilometres of land scorched so far this year, João Lopes was worried about how much more devastation could be on its way.
“Unfortunately, the statistics are showing that maybe next year will be worse than this year,” said the entrepreneur, who founded crop monitoring and fire risk assessment technology company SensaioTech.
Wildfires flaring up around Halifax in recent days are yet another reminder of the increasing risks that many are warning of.
A United Nations report from 2022 found wildfires are becoming “more intense and more frequent” and said with temperatures on the rise as global warming worsens, “the need to reduce wildfire risk is more critical than ever.”
Canada alone sees about 7,500 wildfires burn more than 2.5 million hectares of forest — about half the size of Nova Scotia — every year and that amount is projected to double by 2050, the Canadian Space Agency has said.
“We need to do something to help them,” said Lopes, whose company is split between Toronto and Brazil, where wildfires have threatened the Amazon rainforest and sugar cane fields.
Help could come in the form of technology aimed at making wildfire prevention, containment and fighting easier, more accurate and less costly, he and others believe.
SensaioTech’s offering is centred on artificial intelligence-equipped sensors it places in forests and farm environments. The sensors monitor 14 different variables including soil temperature, humidity, luminosity, salinity, PH levels, pests and diseases.
They take readings every minute, sending them to a dashboard clients can review, and issuing alerts to the customer’s electronic devices when any variables reach dangerous levels.
SensaioTech’s approach is a departure from the historical data and satellites Lopes said are frequently used to predict and thwart the spread of wildfires. While both can be helpful, he said sensor data tends to be more current and precise.
“When you have satellites, normally the images are collected three or four days ago, so basically, you cannot see the real time,” he said.
“Also, it doesn’t have the precision about these small areas or spots where the fire can start.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists has counted 971 satellites that can track smoke and other wildfire factors, up from 192 in 2014. However, few fly over northern latitudes such as Canada’s and many only capture times when fires aren’t burning at their peak.
WildfireSat, the world’s first purpose-built satellite for monitoring wildfires, will aim to change that.
The initiative from the Canadian Space Agency, Canadian Forest Service, Canadian Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation and Environment and Climate Change Canada is scheduled to launch in 2029.
The satellite will fly over Canada in the late afternoon, when fire activity is at its peak, giving firefighters even better ability to predict wildfire behaviour.
At work on the satellite are California analytics company Spire Global and OroraTech, a German space-based thermal intelligence with a Vancouver outpost.
OroraTech pulls data from more than 20 satellites and algorithms that can estimate a fire’s size and location, map the burn area and estimate its severity, sending alerts to devices as soon as a problem or change in conditions is detected.
The company’s philosophy is that wildfires “aren’t going to go away,” said Liene Lapševska, a communications lead at the company.
“We can’t stop it, unfortunately, but we can try to manage it with the right technology.”
Cheryl Evans, director of flood and wildfire resilience at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaption at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, agrees.
While the world is seeing a smaller number of wildfires than in the past, she said “the wildfires that get out of hand and become big monsters are becoming prevalent.
Climate change is partly to blame because it’s creating more hot, dry and windy days that are ideal fire conditions. Increased lightning activity, which causes about half of wildfires by Evan’s estimates, exacerbates matters.
“The other piece that if you’re getting a lot of heat in forests that are not used to that, it stresses them out and can make them more vulnerable to disease.
“Then you get these big dead stands of trees that are just ready to light on fire.”
Any technological advances toward solving such issues or preventing wildfires are “critically important,” she said, because about 90 per cent of public spending is dedicated to fire suppression with only 10 per cent allocated toward prevention.
“It’s very lopsided.”
While communities can use more wildfire- and ignition-resistant materials for building and keep firewood and tanks away from structures, she expects fires will continue to be a force Canada has to reckon with for years to come, even if it adopts more technology.
“We need to learn to live with Mother Nature,” she said. “This is the reality.”
—with files from Bob Weber in Edmonton
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.
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