Imagine being able to accurately predict where forest fires might strike — even in the most remote locations in the province — using freely accessible data from a NASA satellite.

This is the work of Quazi Hassan, a geomatics engineering associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, whose NSERC funding has just been renewed.

“There are only so many weather stations in the province, so there are remote areas where we don’t get very much data,” says Hassan. “My idea is to use remote sensing to forecast where forest fires are likely to occur so we can mobilize resources and get to the areas earlier.”

Currently, the system for forecasting forest fires is reliant on weather stations where data is captured on rainfall volume, temperature, relative humidity and wind speed. Using data captured by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite, Hassan’s team has been able to capture data on precipitable water (the amount of water vapour in a column of the atmosphere that could fall as rain) as well as surface temperature and moisture of vegetation, to create five classes of forest fire risk.

Multi-year study to better understand forest fires

Using historic data, his team found that their high, very high and extremely high classifications coincided with 77 per cent of the fires in Alberta from 2009 to 2011. His findings were promising enough that after five years of NSERC funding, his project has received money for another five years. As this project continues, his team will tackle more questions including how wildfire behaves, and smoke migration patterns.

Hassan’s hope is to develop his research into an accurate system that can augment what is already in place to provide forecasting for areas that are less accessible while also bolstering the reporting from established weather stations.

“We’re trying to better understand where fires happen so firefighters can be prepared and react more quickly and effectively,” says Hassan.

Currently, Hassan’s research team includes a postdoctoral fellow, three PhD students and two master of science students. This project is one piece of a broader interest Hassan has in finding ways to use technology to help mitigate natural disasters caused by fire, drought and flooding.

“These natural hazards can have a huge impact on our existence on the earth’s surface,” says Hassan. “And especially with the effects of climate change now being felt, finding solutions is very important.”