Science helps fight forest fires

July 13, 2006, volume 36, no. 6
By Diane Luckow

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As forest fire season gears up, forest managers are faced with serious dilemmas.

Can they, for example, move fire-fighting equipment and personnel around the province without compromising fire safety in their home precincts? Or, where should they use fire suppression techniques, given the wind direction, type of vegetation and the ‘fuel' on the ground?

A national pilot project to improve Canada's forest fire management practices is developing sophisticated new software tools that simulate these situations and help answer these complex questions.

Charmaine Dean, SFU professor of statistics, is leading the project. She's coordinating the research of 21 people in academia, industry and government across Canada who are examining forest fire management, forest ecology and forest hydrology.

Dean is an expert in spatial modeling. She says a lot of statistics and computer science underpin the visualization techniques the researchers are using to develop computer simulations and statistical models for forest managers, governments and politicians.

The group's plans include improving the fire danger rating system, creating fire management visualization tools for a variety of wind and weather scenarios, and developing tools for issues such as predicting vegetation succession and characterizing resistance to mountain pine beetles.

“This is a massive project,” says Dean. “Canada lacks sophisticated tools like these.”

Funding for the project comes from NCE GEOIDE (Geomatics for Informed Decisions), the National Program for Complex Data Analysis and partner agencies.

Dean says most of the money will be spent on training graduate students to become a new breed of experts in forestry, computational methods, spatial statistics and data visualization.

“After the pilot phase,” says Dean, “we aim to develop a national centre of excellence for this work.”

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