Technology can detect wildfires. Do humans still have to?

After seven seasons working as a fire lookout — someone who watches for wildfires from a tower — near Peace River, Alta., Trina Moyles has witnessed some of the worst wildfire seasons Canada has seen.

“It’s especially stressful when communities are threatened by fires and you can visibly see the wall of fire advancing,” said Moyles. She’s a journalist, photographer and creative producer who has published a memoir about her experience there, titled Lookout.

“It’s a very helpless feeling, but all you can do is watch the fire and the wind conditions and do your job.”

Last year was Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. Last December, fire chiefs from across the country went to Ottawa to ask for more financial assistance after 9,500 volunteer firefighters quit in 2023. The federal government announced $800,000 in additional funding this month to train and hire firefighters, in regular firefighting crews and for combating wildfires .

Meanwhile, new technologies to combat the blazes earned renewed, widespread coverage. Alberta and New Brunswick’s work with AI and the Canadian Space Agency’s dedicated fire-monitoring satellite were just a few of the newsworthy plans.

Technological developments have been on Moyles’s mind throughout his career.

If it takes humans out of towers, advanced technology like drones could eliminate the risk and cost of the job. But Moyles argues that technology can’t entirely replace human lookouts like her, and the focus on the “sexy” tech means they aren’t getting the support they need.

“There is a fear [among lookouts] that these jobs are not being invested in or upheld in the way that they should,” she said.

A woman in a fire tower overlooking a vast green forest.  She is looking at something out of frame with binoculars.
Kimberly Jackson gazes through binoculars in this undated photo. She is one of six wildfire lookouts featured in Fire Tower, Tova Krentzman’s upcoming documentary. (Submitted by Tova Krentzman)

Tova Krentzman is the director of Fire Tower, a documentary premiering at HotDocs on April 29. It follows six lookouts’ experiences in this unique line of work. She’s been getting to know lookouts since she worked as a cook at a “wildfire fighting camp” in 2020, and she could also see their concerns.

Krentzman pointed out that most of Canada doesn’t use human lookouts anymore, and “in the world today, AI and technology, that’s a big topic in general. I think it’s on everyone’s mind, right?”

Why do we still hire humans to watch for wildfires?

Fire lookouts are responsible for observing the first inklings of a wildfire and reporting it. They spend four to six months (the length of the wildfire season) living alone in remote places and watching the horizon.

According to Krentzman, Alberta has 100 fire towers manned with lookouts. Yukon has five, the Northwest Territories has three and British Columbia has one.

Between 2006 and 2021, lookouts such as Moyles detected about 30 per cent of the wildfires in Alberta. Ground patrols detected 17 per cent and air patrols detected 11 per cent. The only type that beat lookouts was “unplanned” detection (phone calls from the public, for example), with 42 per cent.

The key to the job is sharp eyes. Moyles said lookouts can detect wildfires when they’re only 0.01 hectares in size, and catch them early is “critical” to wildfire response.

The lookout’s job doesn’t stop once they’ve reported a fire; they’re also instrumental in helping to coordinate the response. Lookouts can communicate with other towers to triangulate a location or keep in touch with the fire manager about the weather conditions or fire growth, for example.

A poster for a film called Fire Tower, where a wildfire lookout stands in a fire tower as it is struck by lightning.  The title and other details are written in text.
The poster for Fire Tower, Krentzman’s documentary, which is premiering at HotDocs on April 29. (Submitted by Tova Krentzman.)

After a whole season watching the horizon, you’re bound to pick up things that other people wouldn’t notice, Moyles explained. Those who come back to the program year after year are known as “lifers.”

Krentzman, the director, recalled how one lookout in Yukon was “so serious and diligent about looking for smoke.”

“Everyone knows in Dawson City [that] he’s out there, and they feel safer because of it,” she said.

How drones and sensors compare to humans

Alberta has the most remaining lookouts of any province — about 100 altogether, according to Kretzman.

But Alberta’s most recent Wildfire Review (2019) recommended searching for alternatives to the lookout network due to cost and safety concerns.

Drones and sensors detect a wildfire “basically, just like a human,” said Youmin Zhang, an engineering professor at Concordia University researching how to use drones for wildfire management.

According to Zhang, drones are an appealing solution because they’re mobile, low cost, respond quickly and require no pilot. A human doesn’t even need to control them, Zhang said, because AI can be trained to do it automatically.

Moyles appreciates the way that new technology complements a lookout’s job. But he said many people make the “assumption that [lookouts] will be out of work” as new technologies come out.

In some cases, even if we want to replace all lookouts, the technology isn’t good enough yet.

Last year, Alberta tested six systems that used a combination of cameras, sensors, AI and machine learning, to detect wildfires. The human lookout beats all the technology for the highest detection rate.

A woman in a fire tower overlooking a vast green forest.  She is looking at something out of frame with binoculars.
Jackson gazes through binoculars in this undated photo. (Submitted by Tova Krentzman)

Zhang said there are still some challenges with drones, too. Their battery life is limited, they need better night detection, enough sensors and the AI ​​isn’t advanced to make them as smart as a person.

However, he said it’s developing at a fast pace because people are feeling pressured by the onset of climate change. If that continues, he suspects it will eventually be much better than humans.

Researchers in a different part of the wildfire response system found AI could already compare to the people.

Alberta has been using AI to predict where wildfires may begin and Graham Erickson, the senior lead machine learning developer at AltaML, a private AI development firm, said experienced officers found the AI ​​”just agreed with their intuitions.”

Still, Erickson always anticipated it would operate alongside humans, “not replace humans.”

“Human intuition goes into understanding context,” Erickson said. “[The AI] lacks a lot of context, but that’s partially on purpose. We don’t want the programs making all of the decisions.”

To Moyles, that’s for the best.

“Technology has a role to play, but technology is a tool and, at the end of the day, it’s a person who’s making the decision how to use that technology,” she said. “So we really do need to invest in personnel and people.”

A woman wearing protective gear climbs a metal ladder.  She is surrounded by a boreal forest.
Jackson climbs a fire tower in this unrated photo. According to Krentzman, lookouts could spend 10 to 12 hours at the top each day, depending on the day’s fire risk. (Submitted by Tova Krentzman)

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