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UBCO researcher: AI helps fire detection, but no substitute for 'boots on the ground'

AI not 'boots on the ground'

AI and other technologies may help detect wildfires sooner, but the human element is still integral to preventing fires from spreading, says a local researcher.

A wildfire solutions symposium is scheduled to run in Kelowna from June 3 to 5, and one of the co-hosts has been leading the charge to snuff out the flames before they explode into the kind of destructive infernos we saw last summer in parts of the Southern Interior.

Sensors installed across the Okanagan

Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais, with the Centre for Wildfire Coexistence at UBC Okanagan, has been working with Rogers Communications for the past three years. His team has been installing low-cost sensors in the forest that collect data on moisture levels and other elements used to predict fire risk. There are about 100 scattered around the Okanagan.

The data is helping craft models to predict where fires might start and what that fire might do.

During last summer’s McDougall Creek wildfire, 15 of their sensors were burned, yet nine survived.

“So we knew where the fire was because of the sensors that were dropping. We have information now from inside the fire that’s allowing us to kind of build these models,” said Bourbonnais.

Recently, Rogers Communications also partnered with San Francisco-based Pano AI to set up AI-linked cameras at cellphone towers in the Okanagan and the Central Interior. The first two of those cameras helped detect more than two dozen fire starts in the Okanagan. In one case, crews got to the scene 16 minutes faster than they would have using the BC Wildfire Service’s other information networks.

Cameras come with limitations

Bourbonnais says his team also uses cameras, but they come with a caveat.

“It’s still challenging to screen out false positives with smoke and fire detection with cameras,” he explains. “The algorithms are getting better but even with people, when we used to have tower people, sometimes they’d think they see a fire. We’d go investigate and there wouldn't be a fire there.

“There can be other things that produce smoke that can really look like a forest fire. You know, exhaust from a truck, or in Alberta, for example, flare stacks would be a big part of that, or in the north of B.C. Even dust from gravel pits, when it gets up high can start to kind of look like smoke.”

That can be a problem because fire department resources would be stretched responding to false fire starts. He says even if cameras capture the data, people would still need to look at the images to determine if the smoke is coming from an actual fire.

In other parts of North America, cameras have become an integral part of the system. For example, Bourbonnais says Alert California has more than 1,000 cameras in operation. He says there's a benefit of making these images available to the public so they are aware of how close the flames are to where they live and work.

“I mean Castanet last year with McDougall Creek fire, you guys were really telling people what was going on. But it’s still hard sometimes for people to conceptualize that," he said.

“Having a camera feed or camera feeds at these high vantage points that people can log in almost like a traffic camera, and you can see where the fire is, if there’s not too much smoke. That’s really, really useful from a public safety perspective.”

Can drones put out fires?

As for the idea of using drones to get a quick jump on flames, that’s likely a long way off.

“Putting fires out and holding them oftentimes really does depend on getting boots on the ground,” said Bourbonnais.

“So aircraft, definitely, are part of the equation. But even an air tanker responding to a fire quite fast might lose that fire. It really requires the crews on the ground to be able to get in there and hold it on the ground. So, this idea that these small drones that drop a little bit of water are going to be able to penetrate through a canopy to hold a fire, I don’t think that’s been tested really well,” he adds.

He says getting those boots on the ground in the early days of the McDougall Creek fire was difficult. While the fire was detected very quickly, it was located on a very steep slope, in thick timber and in an area almost inaccessible by vehicles.

“What we’re seeing nowadays with fires is sometimes fires are going from ignition to 100 hectares, or 1,000 hectares within a few hours. I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter, but it’s really hard to say that if we’d gotten there a few minutes earlier we would have held that fire.”

During the upcoming Wildfire Coexistence in BC: Solution Symposium, Bourbonnais says there will be a field trip to look at fire mitigation projects with Ntityix Resources, that saved a neighbourhood in 2021. West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund will also be talking about the measures that helped save the Rose Valley Water Treatment Plant last summer.

If you are interested in attending the symposium, register here.



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