A former firefighter’s new tool could help communities plan for wildfires before they start | CBC Radio – best2daynews


The Current19:52Thousands evacuated as wildfires roar across Alberta

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For former firefighter Jen Beverly, the recent wildfires in Alberta are a concerning sight.

“The conditions that we have here in Alberta really are unprecedented with the number of communities impacted,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway. “We’ve had this extended drying, and we’re going to need a lot of rain for these conditions to be significantly changed.”

Now the leader of the University of Alberta’s Wildfire Analytics research team, Beverly says she and her colleagues have developed a tool that could help communities better understand how vulnerable they might be to wildfires. 

The tool, which is being tested in case studies in communities across Alberta and British Columbia, measures the amount of hazardous, highly combustible vegetation that could act as fuel for wildfires, and conveys that info in a colour-coded heatmap.

About 29,000 Albertans have had to flee their homes this past week due to several active wildfires across the province. 89 wildfires are still active as of Tuesday morning, with 24 of which were burning out of control. 

Rebekah Batterink was among those who were forced to evacuate her home. She had only been in Drayton Valley, Alta., for a couple of weeks before the wildfires pushed her out.

“I don’t know a lot of people yet, so for me, I had to really lean into those that were able to connect with me,” she told Galloway. “I was able to get a ride with a friend that I just kind of met that lived close by.”

“I was just thankful to have, you know, people checking in on me, even though I was new.”

New tools developed by Jen Beverly and the University of Alberta’s Wildfire Analytics research team could help communities better track — and plan for — wildfires. (Submitted by Alexa Jordan)

Beverly said it’s been an “extremely dangerous time,” as Alberta has had “unseasonably warm temperatures” as of late. But she said she hopes the tool her team is working on can help communities plan for wildfires earlier.

“We’re really focused on trying to provide communities with some strategic information and ideas … trying to give them some insight about where there might be particular vulnerabilities in terms of a fire on the surrounding landscape, having a pathway to move into the community zone,” she said. 

Mapping out vulnerabilities

Beverly says landscapes are like a quilt work, featuring different types of cover surrounding various communities, from lakes and wetlands to mountainous regions.

These landscapes can include flammable fuels, such as spruce and pine trees, which can “sustain very high intensity [tree] crown fires that can loft embers into communities and can be responsible for structure losses,” or extremely flammable dry, cured grass.

A blackened field.
Scorched fields near Wildwood, Alta. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC)

By mapping out where these fuels exist in and around a community, Beverly says they can predict the direction potential wildfires will move in well ahead of the first ember.

“It’s all dependent on the data that you can get,” she said. “So if we have good information about the fuel and the land cover and what it’s composed of, we can do that with a fair degree of certainty — know that here’s a pathway that a fire could travel along.”

With this tool, Beverly says communities can develop better protection and resiliency plans with regular updates, and map out vulnerabilities they might’ve overlooked, such as evacuation routes.

“If you have a community with really limited roads … and if your egress routes happen to fall within significant fire pathways … you have a potential there that your fire is going to cut off your evacuation routes,” she said.

WATCH: Alberta truckers watch and wait as roads close because of wildfires

Frustrated Alberta Truckers say wildfire road closures creates uncertainty

Truckers across Alberta said they were left scrambling due to a lack of information from the province about the wildfires.

Once a community is able to map out the potential vulnerabilities, Beverly says it can take more informed steps to reduce risks. 

“Mitigation measures could include fuel treatments to remove some of the fuels to thin out sort of the most flammable forest stands, and reduce the potential for those high-intensity fires, and reduce the potential for those embers that are so dangerous for structure ignitions,” she said. 

“So they can manage the fuels themselves. They could change them and remove some of them, or even take some of the fuels out and convert them to some other vegetation types.”

Produced by Magan Carty, Brianna Gosse and Juliana Konrad.

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