Where there’s smoke there’s fire: Researchers enhance forecasting system to better predict smoke patterns

From Defence Research and Development Canada

May 19, 2015

The inhalation of wildfire smoke can have significant impacts on the health and safety of Canadians. It can aggravate pre-existing illnesses such as heart and lung disease and is particularly harmful to children and seniors. It can also cause uncomfortable symptoms such as coughing, breathing difficulties and irritated eyes. On average, Canada experiences around 8,000 wildfires a year. The resulting smoke can travel hundreds of kilometeres and affect millions of people.

That’s why it’s so important to predict where smoke is heading and warn the public of the potential health risks ahead of time. Canada has a system that does just that! This system, known as BlueSky Canada, has been in operations for a few years now but recent investments from DRDC’s Canadian Safety and Security Program is contributing to important advancements. But first, let’s take a step back and look at how the system came to be. Several years ago, Federal and provincial agencies held a workshop in Edmonton to discuss potential solutions. This resulted in a pilot project, originally led and funded by the British Columbia (B.C.) Ministry of Environment and the Alberta Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, which aimed to adapt an existing U.S. system called “BlueSky” for Canadian use. As more agencies got involved, an informal inter-agency partnership was formed, which led to the development of a BlueSky Canada prototype at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2010. The system promptly began producing smoke forecasts for Alberta and B.C.

It operates out of the Geophysical Disaster Computational Fluid Dynamics Center at UBC. It involves a team of fire and meteorological experts from Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada, Parks Canada, B.C. Ministry of Environment, Alberta Ministry of Environment, Sustainable Resource Development and UBC.

BlueSky Canada tracks information on thousands of fires, processes data on the emissions, and combines weather forecast information with data on the transport and dispersion of smoke to create accurate and useful smoke predictions.

In the spring of 2012, Manitoba Health’s Office of Disaster Management (MB Health-ODM) provided BlueSky with the funding that was required to include Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northern Ontario. “Prediction of these events, and increased understanding of the hazard, will allow us to better respond to the public’s safety,” says Barbara Crumb, Director of MB Health-ODM.

Since its origins, BlueSky has been a collaborative effort between scientists and experts in the field from provincial and federal agencies as well as the United States Forest Service. These include the agencies mentioned above, as well as B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, Manitoba Health, and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

In 2013, the effort received important support to further develop the system through the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), a federal program led by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science, in partnership with Public Safety Canada. This led to the creation of Eastern Canada BlueSky with additional support from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

Since the CSSP joined the effort, the BlueSky Canada system has been expanded to produce smoke forecasts for most of Canada, excluding the Northern provinces and territories where the threat of wildfires is extremely low or non-existent. Forecasts are produced twice a day using the latest forest fire information. The information is available on-line, allowing Canadians to stay informed about wildfire smoke patterns and take action when necessary.

The system also benefits professionals in related fields. “As an air quality forecaster, getting involved with additional forecast products such as BlueSky is worth some time and effort considering that modelling may eventually be capable of providing high-confidence forecast guidance about major smoke events that could affect the air quality in major population areas,” said Frank Dempsey from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Smoke forecasts are available to the public at FireSmoke.ca. Awareness of this tool is growing: in the 2014 fire season (spring to summer), it received a quarter of a million views!

With CSSP support, more improvements are in the works, including a modeling system that will help predict how high the smoke from wildfires will rise. This is critical because wind spreads smoke as it rises. Another enhancement is the integration of Forest fire emissions into the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System, which was created by the Canadian Forest Service. This fire danger assessment system will be familiar to people who have seen the Fire Danger signs when they enter Canada’s parks and forests.

Funding from the CSSP is also supporting the development of the BlueSky Canada Playground, an interactive smoke forecast tool used by fire management agencies to predict possible smoke patterns from prescribed fire operations. Prescribed burns are preplanned fires that are intentionally set by fire experts, under controlled conditions, to help prevent fires from breaking out or spreading. Because fire is hard to control, fire management experts have to be very careful when deciding where to light a prescribed burn. The BlueSky Playground predicts where smoke from prescribed burns will go, which helps fire experts choose the safest place to set the fire.

The development of BlueSky Canada is ongoing. Continuous evaluation, enhancements and user experience feedback will enable partners to improve the system so it becomes an even better tool.

Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds of kilometres and affect the health of millions of Canadians.

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