Provincial Wildfire Centre show off new technologies

Jodi Schellenberg
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With wildfires a huge concern for the western half of Canada, the Provincial Wildfire Centre showed what they can do to prevent or help control fires in Saskatchewan.

Steve Roberts, Wildfire Management Branch executive director, points out some of the resources they can track with their new system at the Provincial Wildfire Centre.

Located north of Prince Albert on Highway 2, the Wildfire Centre uses new and old technology to spot fires, track equipment and give firefighters updates on risks and situations.

“Some of the technology that we will see today has been in place for a while and some of it is quite new to our province and to Canada as well,” Environment Minister Scott Moe said. “In addition to the technology and equipment and everything we will see today, we will also see some of the people that operate that equipment and really make our wildfire protection in Saskatchewan the strong unit that it is.”

The first area on the tour of the centre was the operations room, housing a tracking system.

“It is a new state-of-the-art resource tracking and fire information system,” Fire Centre Manager Scott Wasylenchuk said. “What it provides us is real-time situational awareness that is second to none anywhere in the world.”

It is a web-based application, helping them track everything from their helicopters and tankers to personnel and forest fires. Last year the program was in beta testing but is fully operational this year.

“Not that long ago what we were trying to do for information in the field, of course Saskatchewan is a large province and everything was done through telephones and fax machines,” Wasylenchuk said. “When someone asked a simple question like, ‘What is happening with that fire?’ whether it was media or our superiors, it would generate a lot of phone calls, a lot of faxes back and forth and a lot of times when you got that information back to us it was actually fairly outdated.

“With this system now, anybody in our program, whether it is Joe Firefighter or our executive director, can get the same information, the same situational awareness at the same time.”

Not only does it help them track their own equipment and personnel, they can see any other province, territory or state in Canada or the United States on the same system.

“We can see other people’s resources and we can track where we are outside of the province and outside the country,” said Steve Roberts, Wildfire Management Branch executive director. “We have currently sent a tanker and a bird dog to assist the U.S. Forest Service. They are working out of Idaho right now.”

They can track what the aircraft in the field are doing, which is also helpful from a safety management point of view.

“If this aircraft has an issue and stops flying for any reason, we know where that is,” Roberts said. “If this aircraft had an issue and set down somewhere, a helicopter is a good example, and we want to know where that is, we can go there and find right where that helicopter is right now. We use this as check in.”

The system sends reports on the aircraft every two minutes, so if a report is not sent an alert will be issued.

They can also look at other provinces’ resources to see if they could better respond to a forest fire in Saskatchewan.

“We may find out that our closest resources are in Manitoba,” Roberts said. “Our closest resource and best resource may not be ours and vice versa.”

With the new system, they can also input more information in for each site and piece of equipment, using photographs and other resources.

“What we are trying to do is capture the whole (story) of the fire and anyone can go in one place and find all the information of the fire,” Wasylenchuk said.

The second site on the tour was the detection centre, where photographs from the towers are transmitted and examined by a team of four people who work in shifts of two people.

“Basically it is a camera system that was put in on our old manned towers that provides information on fire starts and monitors fires for us but at a central location here instead of mobile locations out in the field,” Roberts said.

The photos are transmitted through the SaskTel 3G and 4G networks, he explained.

“What we have here is the ability to keep track of the status of the system as well as to display what is out there and display and monitor what is going on,” said Bob Spracklin, Aviation Services co-ordinator.

Each tower has a camera that circles at 24 preset angles, taking four photos at each angle. The photos are transmitted to a server in Regina to be stored for up to five days.

At the Wildfire Centre, the operators watch the photos for any anomalies that may appear, mostly in the form of smoke in the image.

“We are hoping to get a fresh view from every camera at every angel in five to six minutes,” Spracklin said.

The camera can also be stopped to go live so the operators can control them. This is helpful when the firefighters are already out at a fire -- they can help tell them information gathered from the camera.

Although they use camera instead of people in towers, Roberts said that hasn’t had a negative effect at all.

“Historically our towers detect between 10 and 20 per cent of fires in any given year -- that is the maximum they have ever detected,” he said. “Currently in this year and this season, our cameras were actually detecting 13 per cent of the fires from the towers. That is similar to past trends.”

One of the biggest benefits is they can go back and look at the photographs if a fire has started -- it can help them determine if it was a natural fire or started by a person.

Using the new system will also make it easier to expand their tower services in the future.

“We will be able to expand to a new detection site for the cost of a camera about $20,000 to $30,000 instead of building a new tower to put a person in which might have cost us $200,000,” Roberts said.

There is the opportunity to put cameras on existing towers, such as the SaskTel 200 foot 4G towers.

“We may have some opportunities to take it farther than we could before because there is existing infrastructure out there that we can put a camera on that we couldn’t put a person at,” Roberts said. “As long as the information comes here centrally, it is no extra work for us to monitor an extra camera here in this facility.”

A 200-foot tower also gives them a better vantage point than their current 90-foot towers.

“If we raise our cameras to that 200-foot tower, our ability to see fires and detect them at a better angle is great and there are lots of 4G towers thanks to SaskTel,” he said. “It may actually give us better coverage over the long run and there are areas where there are towers owned by partners.”

The last stop on the tour was the weather monitoring station, which has been at the centre for a number of years.

“Our ability to have real time, up-to-date information about weather is key to us,” Roberts said. “We use it from a general point of view to predict hazards (for fire crews).”

It helps predict things such as wind shifts, lightning and gives them the opportunity to brief crews on weather patterns before sending them out to the fire.

The investment cost the ministry $1.54 million or the cameras and about $450,000 for the tracking system, Roberts said.

“Really what that is about it providing the very best information that we can to those guys who are going out on the ground and to our tankers in the air so that we can, as they put it in our tour, when they see smoke we can protect Saskatchewan people and families,” Moe said.

“The people who make up the wildfire unit … I would like to make a special thank you for all the effort they make, not just in operating the equipment we see here today, but in the protection they provide to Saskatchewan people and Saskatchewan communities but also to Canadian people and Canadian communities across Canada.”

Organizations: Wildfire Centre, Fire Centre, Wildfire Management Branch U.S. Forest Service Aviation Services

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada, United States Idaho Manitoba Regina

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