Scientist helps get a handle on wildfires

Researcher with Canadian Forestry Centre in Saanich works to predict the number of wildfires and how they will burn

Wild fire research scientist Steve Taylor in the Pacific Forestry Centre.

Wild fire research scientist Steve Taylor in the Pacific Forestry Centre.

Steve Taylor can’t predict where the wildfires are coming but he does his best to predict the number of fires, and how they’ll burn.

The research scientist’s work is heavily relied upon this time of year as B.C. and other parts of Canada face the threat of wildfires now more than ever.

Taylor started at the Canadian Forestry Centre on West Burnside in 1985, following his graduation from Mount Douglas secondary and the University of Victoria. He’s carried on a legacy of forest fire research at the CFC that first started when it was built 50 years ago in 1965.

“Forest fire research has been around in Canada since the 1930s but of course it’s changed,” Taylor said.

His work helps the Canadian Fire Resource Demand System, an inter-provinical network, decide what resources to share, such as firefighters, equipment and aircraft.

“They need to make decisions everyday, asking do we need more firefighters, or can we afford to lend some elsewhere,” Taylor said.

Right now Taylor is involved in an ongoing model predicting the expected amount of forest fires by province, always looking two weeks ahead.

For the weekend of July 31 to Aug. 3, for example, his model expected between 17 and 20 wild fires would spark in B.C. due to lightning alone.

As of the end of July, there were 62 active wildfires in B.C., 46 of which were classified as “limited action,” meaning they were not being fought.

“It’s not unheard of to see a single lightning storm create 100 fires over a few days. The record in B.C. from one lightning storm is 400 fires.”

A big component of what Taylor does is understanding how a fire will behave depending on the conditions of the site.

“If you have a fire in a particular kind of forest and certain weather conditions are expected, fires are generally active in the afternoon and less active at night. There is a daily cycle depending on the variation of temperature, humidity, windspeed, as it’s cooler and humid at 6 a.m., with a peak temperature at 4 p.m.”

Based on that, firefighters will try to exploit a fire’s weakness by getting more work done before the peak period, which includes overnight.

“Of course you can get fires burning well overnight, but anything helps,” he added.

 

There are about 25 people working in wildfire research across Canada, while here in Saanich Taylor relies on the support of economists, statisticians, programmers and IT to get his work out.