‘The fight has changed’: Predicting wildfires with artificial intelligence

Click to play video: '‘The fight has changed’: Artificial intelligence could help future wildfire response'
‘The fight has changed’: Artificial intelligence could help future wildfire response
WATCH: Artificial intelligence could help future wildfire response – Jul 27, 2023

As wildfires ignite across Canada with record speed, a growing number of scientists insist artificial intelligence (AI) should be part of the firefight.

“We need to be changing the way we do business,” said Natural Resources Canada forest researcher Joshua Johnston.

This wildfire season has claimed lives, displaced thousands and reduced air quality for millions across North America. The flames have already burned four times more land than average. The situation is only expected to get worse, as climate change continues to affect the planet.

“We broke all the records,” said Johnston, who is a former firefighter. “I don’t think it will be more than 10 years before we break them all again.”

That’s why he and other researchers believe it’s time to embrace AI.

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Artificial intelligence trains computers to process and interpret data like humans, but on a much larger scale.

“Consider AI like a brain. We need to feed AI with different kinds of experience,” said University of Ottawa engineering associate professor Hossein Bonakdari, who has studied AI and machine learning for more than a decade.

Click to play video: 'How small sensors and AI are being used to detect wildfires early'
How small sensors and AI are being used to detect wildfires early

He’s working with a team of researchers at the University of Hawaii to predict wildfires on the islands and believes their findings can be applied to Canada.

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They input huge swaths of information such as satellite imagery, weather data, soil moisture and human activity, into a computer system, which then interprets the data and searches for patterns to detect the next wildfire.

Bonakdari says most of the information is available, but it often sits in silos.

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“The problem of wildfires can be solved completely by the help of AI,” Bonakdari said. He wants the Canadian government to create a centre for AI wildfire management.

“As wildfires continue to pose a growing threat to communities and ecosystems, there is an urgent need for innovative and technologically advanced approaches.”

João Lopes runs the Brazilian-based company Sensaio Tech and is also banking on the power of AI.

Click to play video: '‘Never seen it so bad’: Record-breaking wildfire season worsens'
‘Never seen it so bad’: Record-breaking wildfire season worsens

His company uses sensors in the tropical forests of Brazil to detect high-risk areas and AI to process their results.

You need to use this data smartly,” said Lopes. “If you have all the information you need, but you don’t know how to process it in the right way, it’s no good.”

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Lopes believes his technology could be useful in Canada’s wilderness and says he has held discussions with several provinces.

Scientists acknowledge there are limitations to AI. It can help manage resources, but only if those resources exist. Firefighters across Canada are stretched thin, as communities are struggling to find new recruits.

“There is no one system that will be a silver bullet that will fix everything,” said Johnston.

In his view, AI should be coupled with traditional firefighting techniques, but he insists Canada needs to use all tools at its disposal.

Change may not be optional, and some of this stuff might become a necessity as we move forward,” said Johnston.

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