The Canada Wildfire NSERC Strategic Network:
Preparing Canadians for Changing Wildfires
Wildfire seasons are beginning earlier and lasting longer. Fires are larger, more frequent, and intense, impacting wildlife, forest resources, and Canadian communities, releasing more carbon into the air and contributing to climate change.
Climate change is increasing temperatures and Canadians will continue to face mounting pressures from wildland fire, like air quality reduction, more frequent evacuations, and economic loss including the destruction of houses and infrastructure. Adding to the challenges, investment in wildland fire science research was declining prior to 2019 with few education options, resulting in fewer trained fire experts. This Network is a promising step toward strengthening wildland fire research and a new generation of fire experts.
What solutions can help Canadians better prepare for changing wildfires?
Solutions for Changing Wildfires
The Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Canada Wildfire Strategic Network (the Network) aims to discover new solutions to better equip Canada to respond to future wildfires.
This network of post-secondary researchers across Canada will respond to fire in a changing world by assessing risk and danger and honing solutions to better predict when and where fires might occur and how they might behave. It will also focus on ecosystem impacts, looking at how they interact with and are impacted by fires. Through focused research, the Network will improve the prevention, detection, and reduction of damaging wildfires while reducing evacuations and enhancing recovery from wildfires.
Federal Government Invests In The Network
Funding for the Network is part of a federal government investment in the Emergency Management Strategy to help Canadians become more resilient to a range of risks including floods, earthquakes, and wildland fire.
NSERC will provide $5 million dollars over a five-year research period to support academic research. The NSERC network and funding was formally announced by Minister O’Regan of Natural Resources Canada on June 24, 2020.
Over 70% of the funding will train the next generation of fire scientists, supporting 66 post-graduate students including 35 masters and 19 doctoral students, and 12 postdoctoral researchers.
Research Priorities Come from The Blueprint
From 2018 to 2019, groups of Canadian wildfire science experts met to identify the greatest research needs, coordinated by the Canadian Forest Service. This led to the development of a summary document, “The Blueprint for Wildland Fire Science in Canada (2019–2029)”. This document helped guide two further NSERC sponsored meetings to specifically discuss the scope and priorities for the development of an NSERC research proposal.
“The Blueprint” recommended research organized around six connected themes; the Network will focus on highlighted ones:
Understanding fire in a changing world
Recognizing Indigenous knowledge
Building resilient communities and infrastructure
Delivering innovative fire management solutions
Reducing the effects of wildland fire on Canadians
The Network Teams
To create needed solutions within the three themes, diverse post-secondary research teams, each with their own specialties, are assembling across Canada. The teams will work collaboratively on seven fire research priorities within the three Blueprint themes, and each team has a lead with co-applicants that will receive NSERC funding. In turn each team has collaborators who are contributing their own resources and come from universities, government fire management agencies, Indigenous groups, and other research organizations across the country. Jointly they will supervise the 66 post-graduate students.
Network Team Leads:
Dr. Mike Flannigan (University of Alberta), Principal Investigator/Science Director
Dr. Lori Daniels (University of British Columbia)
Dr. Laura Chasmer (University of Lethbridge)
Dr. Mike Waddington (McMaster University)
Dr. Douglas Woolford (University of Western Ontario)
Dr. Patrick James (University of Toronto)
Dr. David Martell (University of Toronto)
Network Research: Three Themes and Seven Priorities
Teams will focus on seven research priorities addressing questions drawn from the three themes from “The Blueprint”.
Theme: Understanding Fire in a Changing World
Priority 1: Wildfire Risk
Canada’s need for a comprehensive framework for wildfire risk assessment is documented in “The Blueprint.” Fire spread and damages in recent high-profile fire events remain poorly understood and methods and models are needed to estimate risk at all scales.
The Network will develop models that fire agencies can use to assess the risk of wildfire, collaborating with Canadian Forest Service and provincial and federal fire management agencies.
To develop these risk models, the Network needs to better understand the risk of a fire, looking into such factors as human-caused fires and the chance peat will ignite. The team will assess what makes an area vulnerable to large fires, looking at prevention efforts, fire management policy and decisions, and weather forecast uncertainty.
Priority 2: Wildfire Danger
“The Blueprint'' addresses the urgency to better understand how changes in the Canadian landscape are affecting wildfire. Increased burnable vegetation caused by climate change, pest infestations, and past fire-suppression practices and policies has created a challenge for successful fire management.
To answer the most pressing wildfire danger research needs, the Network needs to better understand flammability and how insect outbreaks change fuel and impact wildfires.
Fire managers need the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System (CFFDRS) to better represent organic fuels (peat soils). The Network will contribute to updates to the CFFDRS by studying the factors that cause flammability. They will develop a model to understand how different organic fuels are connected to each other across the landscape.
The Network will investigate how climate change contributes to insect outbreaks and in turn their impact on wildfires and the forest’s health and sustainability. Specifically, they will assess fuel changes through defoliation, caused by the spruce budworm, jack-pine budworm, and the mountain pine beetle.
Priority 3: Measurement Improvements and Novel Data Sources
Fire-management faces more complex decision-making as the nature and behavior of fire changes. To support flexible operational and response activities, “The Blueprint” explains that new advancements are needed in the collection of accurate, timely, and accessible data. This includes improvements in earth observation technologies, such as LiDAR, which make up the basis of all models and decision-support tools.
The Network will develop new ways to use airborne and satellite remote sensing to measure fuels using a number of different technologies. LiDAR, which measures the 3D structure of trees, shrubs, and ground characteristics provides information that is similar to on the ground measurements, but across large areas.
The information that LiDAR provides is often less expensive to collect than field measurements. Because many ecosystems are sampled, these datasets will be used to understand the flammability of the environment, while also being used to compare with freely available satellite imagery, collected everywhere almost every day. The Network will use this new information to support updates to the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System and the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, adding to the understanding of how fuel is impacted by climate change effects such as increased insect infestation, and uprooted trees across Canada.
Theme: Managing Ecosystems
Priority 4: Fire Effects on Ecological Processes
“The Blueprint” outlines that more must be learned about the immediate, short-term, and
long-term effects of fire on the health and resilience of ecosystems and related ecological processes including vegetation, wildlife, hydrology, carbon stocks, and soils. There are gaps in what is known about the complex interactions among wildland fire, landscapes, people, and climate change.
To measure ecosystem health, the team will generate new methods for using remote sensing of trees and other important parts of the ecosystem after a fire. LiDAR and field data collected across large areas of Canada's north will be used to measure how much vegetation was burned, how much was released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, and how these ecosystems will regrow and change after a fire.
These results will link to other satellite images and models, which will give the Network a longer time scale perspective of the health of ecosystems across Canada, including Canada's forests, wetlands, and tundra.
Priority 5: Past, Present, and Future Fire Regimes
“The Blueprint” acknowledges that improvements are needed to describe fire regimes and how they interact with other disturbances such as climate change, insect outbreaks, and diseases.
The Network will improve fire descriptions, including their frequency, size, severity, cause, and when they occur. They will provide forecasting tools to researchers, and fire and forest managers allowing them to simulate fires and determine what management, fire, and insects will do to timber supply, forest health, and resilience.
The team will describe how fuels, weather, and surface features of the land contribute to a fire’s severity. By looking at how plants recover after a fire, they will investigate how wildfires and logging from burned areas impact the strength of a forest.
The Network will measure how proactive strategies such as prescribed fires and reducing fuels, including thinning of forests and reducing hazardous fires, will contribute to resilience from future fires. The team will work with Indigenous experts to learn their methods and results of using prescribed burns. These observations will be linked to models and remotely sensed data so that we can predict fire behaviour across larger areas.
Theme: Delivering Innovative Fire Management Systems
Priority 6: Fire Improvements to Operational Response
“The Blueprint” recognizes that fire managers need enhanced tools so they can protect communities by responding more safely, quickly, and more efficiently to the rapidly changing nature of wildland fire.
The Network researchers will draw on their analytics and artificial intelligence expertise and collaborate with fire management agencies to develop and test improved decision-making tools and train the next generation of scientists along the way.
Through the detailed mapping of fuel types, the tools will help decision-makers, like duty officers, identify where fires can be left to burn safely and monitored without significant suppression intervention. Integrating fire risk assessments into the tool will inform the development of fire management strategies through an innovative and appropriate response. To better manage resources required to extinguish unwanted fire, the research results will provide guidance on the optimal deployment and use of fire suppression resources, including the sharing of such resources between provinces or countries.
Priority 7: Improvements to Planning
Fire managers require effective tools that help optimize scarce resources and enable the most efficient deployment of firefighting assets, as identified in “The Blueprint”.
To help improve fire management planning, the Network will determine how decision support systems can be used to support the efficient sharing of Canadian fire management resources. A resource sharing tool will be created based on data from three provincial resource sharing models. The tool will be based on a better understanding of agency needs.
In particular, researchers will study the use of air tankers, a costly but effective resource. The research results will help make better use of tankers by helping fire managers decide where and when to best use them and when they can be shared with other provinces.
Training the Next Generation of Canadian Wildland Fire Scientists
In 2016, the updated Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy identified a lack of qualified fire management candidates as a major issue that fire management agencies are already facing. To address this pressure, Network researchers will train 66 postgraduate students. Their training will prepare them to work and conduct research with Canadian forest fire management agencies. These new researchers will contribute to innovative wildfire science and management solutions for the next several decades.
They will study diverse aspects of wildfire science, including fire danger rating, wildfire risk analysis, and landscape and vegetation ecology. They will acquire knowledge in wildfire management planning, logistics, and environmental issues and an understanding of climate change. They will learn how natural systems like forest ecosystems are influenced by fire and will develop skills in remote sensing and computer simulation.
Students will build their networking, leadership, and presentation skills at conferences, workshops, and meetings, including the Network’s annual general meeting (AGM). They will build long-term connections with fire managers, fellow students, and colleagues, leading to new collaborative research opportunities. They will contribute to the Network’s knowledge exchange through research publications, conferences, and more. Many will have opportunities to sharpen their mentoring skills by supervising graduate and undergraduate students.
Students will receive:
Internships at government agencies such as Canadian Forest Service and provincial wildfire agencies as well as industry and other research organizations. Students will attend prescribed burns, interact with fire management agency staff, and receive some fire management certification.
Participation in one of the Wildland Fire Canada Conferences (in either 2021, 2023, or 2025) alongside wildland fire managers, specialists, researchers, and graduate students.
Attendance at one Network annual general meeting (AGM), timed with the Wildland Fire Canada Conference. AGMs will focus on information sharing, project updates, and emerging research opportunities. Students can attend workshops and informal networking events organized for them.
Exchanges with other Canadian universities
Proposed courses for students include:
Principles of Wildland Fire, a multi-day course delivered by Canada Wildfire and Canadian Forest Service.
Field Course in Wildland Fire, a specialized field course delivered by Canada Wildfire.
Analytics Training, using statistical software and learning data modeling methods taught by Douglas Woolford, options for either online or in-person workshop.
The Incident Command System - coordinated through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC).
Advanced Remote Sensing - A training course provided through the University of Lethbridge and others.
Wildfire Science and Interactions between Wildfire and Other Forest Disturbances - a summer school program taught through the University of Toronto.
Strengthening Relationships with Fire Agencies and Reporting Research Results
In partnership with Canada Wildfire, the Network will communicate its new wildland fire knowledge, led by their knowledge translation and mobilization specialist. A strategic knowledge exchange plan will create numerous ways to communicate Network results.
One key way to exchange knowledge is through “The Hub”, a central virtual resource. The Hub will provide a place where fire practitioners and managers can connect with Network researchers. This will help practitioners and researchers understand each other and how the new knowledge will effectively be applied in the field. It will enable managers to adopt policy and operating changes and move wildfire management forward.
Once created, the strategic exchange knowledge plan will share Network results through numerous tools including websites, social media, meetings, and more.
The Network’s Management
The Network is led in partnership with Canada Wildfire with leadership from a board of directors and guided by a scientific advisory committee.
Network Board of Directors
The Network board is responsible for the management, direction, and financial accountability. They review scientific progress and financial reports and make budget recommendations to NSERC. The Network board includes members of Canada Wildfire’s executive committee.
Voting board members include:
Chair of the Canada Wildfire Executive Committee (or designate) will also serve as chair of this board.
All other members of the Executive Committee for Canada Wildfire who are as of June 2020:
The Canadian Forest Service.
The University of Alberta.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
BC Wildfire Service.
Canada Wildfire science director.
The remainder of the voting board members will come from other wildland fire agencies, Indigenous organizations, emergency response communities, insurance companies, forest industries, and fire organizations. Non-voting board members include the managing director of Canada Wildfire (who serves as secretary), the NSERC representative, and others designated by the board.
The board will meet at least twice per year.
Scientific Advisory Committee
The Scientific Advisory Committee will assist in evaluating the Network’s scientific progress, adjusting goals, priorities, and milestones as needed. As science director, Mike Flannigan will chair the committee. The committee will prepare an annual report for the Network’s board of directors.
Committee members are the Network’s lead researchers, representatives from Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC)’s Fire Science Committee, and other members from academia, industry, government, and non-governmental organizations.
The committee meets quarterly.
The Network has a managing director, who oversees both the Network’s and Canada Wildfire’s administration. This person manages the Network’s finances, including central and partner (other universities) distributed funds and reporting. They work closely with lead researchers to monitor progress, set work plans, and manage resources and spending. The managing director will create administrative and archive policies, ensuring confidential data is securely stored. They will supervise the knowledge translation & mobilization specialist including knowledge translation and exchange and communication of research results. The managing director will also coordinate the annual general meeting, board of directors, and science advisory committee meetings.
The Network is set to end research in the fiscal year 2025-26. Through the Network’s efforts, they aim to contribute to:
Better fire management strategies
Informed forest management policy and practices
An educated public
A strong, integrated research community
Enhanced research capacity in face of scarce resources
Sharing and use of their knowledge
Collaborative approaches to shared national priorities