Translating science and technology to help snuff out forest fires before they are beyond control

New sensors could watch over forests to spot fires earlier

02 December 2019

(Edmonton) Wildfires are intensifying around the world and Alberta is no exception. In 2019, the province lost an area of forest larger than the province of Prince Edward Island-it was the second-worst forest fire loss in the books.

One way of reducing the number of large fires is to respond rapidly. An Engineering at Alberta researcher has developed a sensor capable of detecting and reporting fires within minutes. Sensitive enough to detect tiny particles even before a smoke plume is spotted, the sensors could add an additional layer of monitoring to raise the alarm when fires break out.

"The current method of detecting forest fires is primitive-someone has to see smoke coming out, but by the time news spreads so has the fire and it's kind of too late," said electrical engineering professor Masum Hossain.

The sensors Hossain and his team developed use laser technology to detect compounds produced by forest fires.

"These particles are emitted very early when a fire starts, and it's important that we detect them very quickly," he said. "These sensors are your eyes and ears in the forest."

The devices were tested in prescribed burns during the summer months, and performed exceptionally well, detecting and signalling reports of smoke particles within two minutes of ignition of a fire.

An on-screen "dashboard" designed by computer engineering students can be tied into a monitoring system to provide forestry workers a view of the location of each sensor. The devices use cellular technology to send messages once smoke particles are detected.

There are still challenges to overcome. The greater the number of sensors in place, the more protection they will provide. The devices built by Hossain's team turned technology that once cost between $10,000 and $30,000 per unit to a more affordable $300 per unit. Hossain believes it's possible to make changes to the design and bring the per unit price down to $50.

Another issue is cellular reception. Alberta's vast tracts of Boreal forest aren't necessarily covered with cellular service but, he says, near populated areas with cell service, early warning could help communities prepare and respond to fires.

--Thien Nguyen