Alberta to test new wildfire-fighting technology this season for about $4.3M

·2 min read
A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 4, 2016. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 4, 2016. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Alberta government will test new technologies used for detecting and managing wildfires this season.

More than $4.3 million will be spent to evaluate tools that include gel water enhancer systems, high-volume water delivery systems, remote wildfire detection cameras and drones.

"The safety of Albertans and their communities is our top priority," said Alberta Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshe in a release earlier this month.

"So we're moving forward on new firefighting tools and practices, like artificial intelligence and drones, to add even more firefighting tools to our tool kit."

High-volume and gel water enhancement systems

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, told the Canadian Press last week that May is the busiest month for wildfires in Alberta.

Wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather said that the tools currently being evaluated by the government are part of an ongoing effort to manage wildfires more effectively in Alberta.

"We're always looking at ways that we can improve [how] we fight fires," Fairweather said.

"[But] sometimes it's discovered that these technologies don't work, or aren't cost-feasible, and that's … why we do these evaluations."

Some of the tech is already being actively tested in Alberta, such as high-volume water delivery systems.

They use large quantities of water to douse fires with cannons and sprinklers, and can make water available to areas without an abundant resource.

Alberta also has two helicopters equipped with gel water enhancement systems that Fairweather said use fire suppressants to reduce the amount of oxygen available to the fire.

Wildfire detection cameras and drones

Remote wildfire detection cameras are in an earlier stage of evaluation in Alberta.

They can be set up to feed photos and videos of plumes of smoke, or wildfires in their early stages, to computers that learn to recognize fires and alert firefighters to respond.

The cameras can also be set up in remote areas without lookout towers, Fairweather said.

Drones are also being considered, and can be used to investigate the causes of wildfires, navigate areas deemed unsafe for firefighters, and are sometimes more cost-effective than using helicopters.

"It's not often that we do firefighting operations after dark and especially using aircraft … so definitely, we continue to evaluate the viability of drones for purposes such as that," Fairweather said.

Criteria will be used to assess success, cost-savings

While it will take some time to understand how effective the new technologies are, Redwood Meadows fire Chief Rob Evans first acquired a drone to monitor swollen rivers during the 2013 flood.

He said it has become an essential firefighting tool.

"As far as tools for firefighting goes, or emergency management … the data they gather, the photos they gather ... help guide decisions throughout an entire event," Evans said.

The government said after the 2021 wildfire season, the technologies will be evaluated based on criteria that includes their effectiveness and potential cost savings.

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