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Increasing wildfires in Canada’s forests: The new normal

If you asked my kids what has been their favourite vacation, their trips to Disneyland and Maui would not be at the top of their lists. What would be are the times spent with my sister and her family on their homestead just outside Telegraph Creek, BC.  I am heartbroken that they will never be able to have those experiences again, as my sister and her husband, along with their daughter and her young family, lost their homes earlier this month to the Alkali Lake wildfire.

While I can’t begin to understand how my sister and her husband feel right now – having claimed and cleared that land, built the home with their own hands, raised three amazing kids, and lived off the grid and very much off the land – I can understand that theirs is one of many stories of loss, heroics, resilience and triumph.

The Alkali Lake wildfire was discovered on August 1 and, to track how the fire was spreading and understand its size and behaviour, I (like many others with family in the area) have been monitoring the BC Wildfire Service’s Interactive Wildfire Map. The day before the fire took my sister’s house, the map showed that their guest cabin was just within the fire perimeter. That evening, I confirmed with her via phone that the cabin was indeed gone, but that the rest of the buildings were still standing at that time. Understanding the technology, data collection and management behind building this intuitive map, I wasn’t surprised by the precision, accuracy and timeliness of information, but I was very thankful for being able to stay informed of the changing situation.

Through the BC Wildfire Service map, I was able to find that as of August 20, a total of 125 personnel (including Australian and New Zealand crews) are working on and in support of this fire. There are 19 pieces of heavy equipment, including 4 water tenders as well as 11 helicopters, supporting firefighting efforts. Similar details can be found for all wildfires of note within British Columbia through the map or directly from BC Wildfire Service’s Wildfires of Note page.

The BC Wildfire Service map shows all active wildfires and includes an “All Current Year Wildfires” tab, which brings into context the path of devastation BC has faced in 2018. 

According to Natural Resources Canada’s FAQ on their Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, “models that estimate the future climate indicate that conditions will likely be drier and warmer in the future throughout much of Canada. Under these conditions, fire can be expected to increase in Canadian forests on the whole with the area burned possibly doubling over the next century.”

We must prepare for this new normal.

You may ask, how?

Build your location intelligence capability.

Ryan Lanclos, Esri’s Director of Public Safety Industries, recently wrote in his blog post, Preparing for the New Normal in Emergency Management, that “the element of location is key to understanding… and that having a baseline location intelligence capability in place is a crucial component of being prepared for the new normal in emergency management.” He goes on to state that “organizations need the element of location to help them make better decisions, and they need solutions that enable these critical decisions to be data-driven. Therein is the value of location intelligence.”

If you look at the most common business challenges of disaster response organizations below, you’ll notice that every single one requires location intelligence.

  • Monitoring real-time situational awareness
  • Understanding potential impacts to the community
  • Conducting initial damage assessments
  • Presenting dynamic incident briefings
  • Managing public information and scaling for the news media cycle

Put an integrated solution in place to meet these challenges.

If you already have a solution for each of the challenges outlined above, a good question to ask is: are they integrated on a common operating platform, so that data and information can flow between apps and users? Can you get information out of your business systems and into the hands of partners or the public when needed?

Ensure that your solution can be used for daily operations, not just during emergencies.

You’ll get the most value out of an emergency management solution that can be integrated into your daily operations. When you leverage it daily, you become more confident in using it, and this will help you get ready for the next incident.

Choose a solution backed by best practices.

When evaluating solutions, consider those by vendors with proven expertise in disaster response  and emergency management, so you can leverage lessons learned and  industry best practices.

At Esri Canada, I am honoured to be associated with Esri’s Disaster Response Program (DRP), which consists of a  team dedicated to helping organizations around the world respond to incidents of all types and sizes. This team combines the science of geography with Esri's geographic information system (GIS) platform, called ArcGIS, to provide location intelligence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

When disaster strikes, Esri’s DRP is ready to support responding agencies 24/7.

In recent history, Canadian organizations have requested and received support from Esri’s DRP in their response to several notable disasters:

  • 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire for which Esri provided additional software licences and Esri Canada developed several apps to keep the public updated on what was happening on the ground.
  • 2018 BC Wildfires for which Esri provided software licences to ensure enhanced multi-jurisdictional wildfire emergency mitigation and response capabilities throughout the province

In the 20-year history of the DRP, 2017 was the busiest year. It seems wildfires and other disaster-related incidents like flooding will continue to set new records and re-define normal.

Through lessons learned in assisting our users through the DRP, Esri has released new pre-configured solutions for emergency management operations that can improve your incident as well as daily, "blue sky" operations.

Preparing for the new normal requires awareness of increasingly complex threats and hazards, an ability to analyze and understand potential impacts, and the capability to monitor real-time conditions for true situational awareness. Esri Canada provides a complete solution suite for the most mission-critical operational challenges. When incidents occur, you will be ready to respond with a set of integrated tools for situational awareness, impact analysis, damage assessment, operational briefings and public information. Our solutions enable mission-critical decisions that can help you save lives.

You can download and configure these solutions yourself, or we can provide services to deploy and configure them for you. We can also help you develop a plan for surge staffing in your Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), using qualified GIS professionals from Esri Canada and/or Esri to augment your capability if needed during a response.

While my sister and her family start the process of putting together their new lives and trying to establish their new normal, we can’t express our appreciation enough to the BC Wildfire Service, the teams both on the ground and those coordinating the efforts. These are the people who work tirelessly in dangerous conditions to help protect life and property.

About the Author

David Hamilton is the Public Safety Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of public safety, specifically (NG)9-1-1, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, emergency management, and search and rescue. Prior to joining Esri Canada in 2010, David managed the GIS for E-Comm 9-1-1 in Vancouver, and worked for the RCMP at the Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he managed their Common Operating Picture. Being active has been a major part of David’s personal life; soccer, track & field, skiing, cycling, hiking and now kayaking are all among his favourite activities.

Profile Photo of David Hamilton