June 1, 2022

UCalgary prof hopes science can help mitigate future forest-fire disasters

Quazi Hassan says several factors make May the most at-risk month
Quazi Hassan is working on the development of forest fire-forecasting systems. Colleen De Neve, for the University of Calgary

On the anniversary of two of Alberta’s largest-ever fire-related disasters, a University of Calgary researcher is determined to develop a forest fire-forecasting system for the province.

In May 2011, more than a third of the town of Slave Lake was destroyed by a wildfire, with insured losses estimated at $700 million.

Five years later, wildfires in the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, including Fort McMurray, caused more than $2.7 billion — the costliest-ever Canadian natural disaster, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Dr. Quazi Hassan, PhD, has been analyzing NASA satellite data from the past 20 years, hoping to better understand forest fires and the conditions that create them.

The geomatics engineering professor has broken the province up into 21 natural subregions, quantifying the extent and magnitude of monthly and annual warming trends, and is starting to see some trends develop.

The warmup begins

Hassan says we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve seen two of the most-devastating natural disasters in Alberta happen during the month of May.

While many might think wildfire risk is higher in the hotter months of July and August, he says May is when we see the most significant rate of warming trends, both day and night.

In the month of May, the province is warming at an accelerated rate.

In particular, the satellite imagery in his report shows that some of the biggest temperature increases are found in Northern Alberta.

Precipitation is also always top of mind for many people, especially farmers and ranchers, who remind us that “April showers bring May flowers.” The same goes for the trees in Northern Alberta’s forests, as their need for water increases coming out of winter.

“The snow melting provides some of that water, but, at some point, the demand is so much so that they start to deplete,” says Hassan. “That depletion makes the trees more vulnerable and flammable.”

He also points to old branches and leaves on the ground that might not be able to decompose during cold winters, thus becoming more susceptible to drying out and acting as kindling in the spring.

Engaging communities

The intersection of climate change and wildfire risk has been at the root of Hassan’s work over the past few years. In 2018, he released a study with recommendations for urban planners on how best to prevent catastrophic infernos from entering communities.

The study found 30 per cent of the areas within the buffer zones of 10 to 30 metres were vulnerable, with stands of trees and bushes needing to be removed to reduce the effects of a future fire. Recommendations included leaving more open spaces, using parking lots and ring roads as firebreaks, and avoiding unnecessary groves of trees and shrubbery.

Hassan used those findings to formulate a structured survey for municipal officials to discuss, with many agreeing with the mitigation efforts being proposed.

“We also had some respondents come forward with other ideas,” he says. “Some believe using fire-resistant materials in home and building construction is another major step, while others suggested using the vegetation-free buffer zones as recreation spaces.”

Avoiding future disasters

Hassan says science needs to dictate how we best avoid the next fire-related natural disaster in Alberta, with his research only a part of a bigger picture.

“This type of analysis can help the province, because the province is responsible for forest fire management,” Hassan says. “If we know, or can pinpoint where these fires are happening, then we can develop a proper mitigation strategy.”