Canadian Government Launches Wildfire Alert System from Space

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Three Canadian government departments — the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Natural Resources Canada (NRC), and Environment and Climate Change (ECC) Canada — are embarking on a trailblazing venture that aims to provide up-to-the-minute wildfire data from space. Under the moniker “WildFireSat,” the initiative seeks to launch a fleet of satellites by 2029 capable of delivering a nationwide wildfire alert system with 30-minute real-time updates.

The government has poured approximately $169.9 million into the project, which intends to use infrared sensors onboard the satellites to measure the energy — so-called “fire radiative power” — released by conflagrations.

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As of now, there are no satellites on duty capable of surveilling the peak burning period of a fire, which usually occurs mid-to-late afternoons. WildFireSat’s goal is to bridge this knowledge gap by providing fire managers with a steady stream of data that could ideally improve wildfire preparedness and response.

The mission leans heavily on three cornerstone objectives: providing meticulous mapping of a wildfire’s boundaries, projecting the fire’s growth trajectory based on the weather and available fuel, and delivering a comprehensive overview of smoke dispersion and air quality conditions.

“We aim to develop a powerful tool that offers a holistic perspective on wildfires, encompassing aspects ranging from the nature of fuels involved to the nature of air pollutants released,” shares Chris McLinden, ECC’s research scientist. He envisions the data collected aid in furthering our understanding of wildfires, their patterns and impacts.

Beyond its practical applications, the mission’s data will contribute to gauging the environmental impacts of wildfires, particularly in measuring the amount of carbon emissions produced by these natural disasters.

The endeavor is well underway, with the CSA on the cusp of shortlisting contractors for the project. The eagerly-awaited winner is expected to be unveiled in 2024. Upon completion, the system will bolster our capacity to protect resources, infrastructure, and the environment while improving situational awareness, especially near inhabited areas.

Although the project has been in the pipeline since 2014, it will be several years awaiting fruition, despite the urgent need for such data. Miriam Micael, the engineering project manager with CSA, acknowledges this, stating that they are endeavouring to expedite the project without compromising on the quality of the final product.

In the wake of Canada’s worst wildfire season in 2023, which left thousands displaced and incinerated millions of hectares of land, contemplating the impact of WildFireSat’s future contributions is notably poignant.

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