Two University of Toronto professors are among the scientists leading the Wildland Fire Research Network – a new, Canada-wide coalition of seven forest-fire researchers at six different academic institutions.
Professor Emeritus David Martell and Associate Professor Patrick James, both of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Landscape, Architecture, and Design’s forestry department, have been tapped to play key roles in the new network, which aims to increase Canada’s expertise in wildland fire science.

As part of the initiative, James and Martell will have access to new funding earmarked specifically for the purpose of training new master’s, PhD, and post-doctoral students in forest-fire research techniques. The federal government said it would be partnering with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to provide $5 million for the creation of the Wildland Fire Research Network.

“I have three new Ph.D. students who have already signed on, and there will be more in the future,” James says. “Without this grant, I wouldn’t have had the financial means to take on these students. It’s a huge boost to our forestry group.”

James is a specialist in landscape-scale forest disturbance processes, including the destruction wrought by the spruce budworm and the mountain pine beetle – insects whose fecundity and voracious feeding habits make them capable of killing vast swaths of Canadian forests (the dry, dead trees they leave behind can act as tinder when exposed to fire).

Martell is co-director, with Mike Wotton, of the Fire Management Systems Laboratory. He studies new techniques for detecting and managing forest fires.

An increase in the number of trainees isn’t the only benefit for the U of T researchers. “It’s not just about increasing the number of students,” Martell says. “It’s about increasing the breadth of expertise of people who are interested in fires.”

By drawing on the varied backgrounds and institutional connections of the network’s participants, students will be able to study forest fires from the perspectives of different disciplines, including ecology, physics, chemistry, and the social sciences.

Students from across the new research network will also have opportunities to meet each other and form valuable professional connections. “The most important thing we’re going to do is have ‘summer schools,’” Martell says. “We’re going to bring our graduate students together. Students will make presentations, and we’ll bring in professors to give talks – but, most importantly, the students will start to network with each other.”

The end result will be a new generation of highly qualified researchers and professionals with the skills, knowledge, and interpersonal connections necessary to protect Canada’s forests and forest-adjacent communities for decades to come.

The infusion of money into Canadian forest-fire research comes at an opportune moment: With climate change continuing unabated, scientists expect forest fires to become more frequent and more severe. According to federal government statistics, there are approximately 8,000 fires in Canadian forests each year.

Although fires can be a natural and healthy part of a forest’s lifecycle, they pose a threat to human safety when they approach what’s known as the wildland-urban interface – the border between the natural world and dense human settlements. Recent disasters like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire have demonstrated the potential costs of a lack of investment in forest-fire research and control.

“This grant is a response to those events, and a recognition that we need more people to work on these problems,” Martell says.