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April 2004

FOREST FIRES

Pioneer forest fire fighter

A small New Brunswick company—Remsoft Inc—has been a pioneer in providing computer programs that help predict forest fire spread and intensity, allowing fire officials to allocate equipment and fire fighters more effectively and safely.

By George Fullerton

 Remsoft co-founder Ugo Feunekes: “From a safety point of view, it is important to be able to get accurate and detailed information to fire crews in the language they can understand and work with.”

During the summer of 2003, as wild fires raged in the west, there was little need for fire fighting at the eastern end of Canada, as the weather was dominated by plenty of moisture and overcast conditions. The low fire risk on the east coast provided the opportunity for personnel to be assigned to the west—through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre—where the demand for fire fighting expertise was at an all time high. When Tim Greer, a fire behaviour specialist with the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources, worked on fires in British Columbia and Manitoba this past summer, he relied on a New Brunswick-produced computer program to predict forest fire spread and intensity.

WeatherPro3 and Behave programs produced by Remsoft Inc are used extensively by natural resource agencies all across North America. Greer’s training as a fire behaviour specialist and his experience with Remsoft software allowed him to assume a highly technical function in geography that was very different from his native province. Based in Fredericton, Remsoft is a small technology-based firm which has established itself as a premiere software developer for forest fire behaviour and forest management fields. Their fire weather data and fire behaviour programs have been the training tools of choice at the Hinton Environmental Training Centre in Alberta, which is recognized as the leading provider of wild land fire management for both Canada and the US. Remsoft’s products are also making inroads in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world.

Remsoft was among the first software developers to offer products designed specifically for fire weather data collection and wildfire behaviour prediction in 1993. During the same period, Remsoft developed their forest management and harvest scheduling products—Woodstock and Stanley (named for two New Brunswick towns)—which have also become among the highest rated and most utilized programs in their fields. Remsoft was founded by Andrea and Ugo Feunekes in the early 1990s.

The couple had studied Forestry at Lakehead University, continued with advanced studies at McGill and finally completed their Masters in Forestry at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Following their studies, both Ugo and Andrea worked for R/EMS Research Ltd in Fredericton, a pioneer in computer applications for forestry, before launching Remsoft. In the past, forest fire control agencies relied on manually gathering data on precipitation, relative humidity, wind speed and temperature from weather stations and then sitting down with pencil and field guide to calculate the Fire Weather Index (FWI) for the day. The FWI was used to generate fire weather maps showing wild fire risk. The FWI index was also the key data used, along with a binder of graphs and tables, to calculate fire behaviour predictions for ongoing fires. Across North America today, fire weather stations use automatic systems which electronically capture and transmit weather data.

Within seconds, the accumulated weather data can be entered in the Weatherpro3 program, which instantly calculates the Canadian standard FWI or the US National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS), fire weather maps, and graphs or written reports on fire weather outlook. This speed and accuracy allows managers to get metrological data on a minute-by-minute basis, from any combination of regional weather stations. They can track small changes in weather, which can have the potential to lead to big changes in the characteristics of a wild fire. “These Remsoft products do the exact same things we used to do manually,” explains Greer. “The difference is that we get the information much quicker now. The beauty of these systems is that they are fast and accurate, and that gives us the ability to react very quickly to weather changes and make strategic decisions for fire attack and crew safety.” WeatherPro 3 is currently being used by agencies not generally associated with wild fire management.

Space agency NASA uses WeatherPro for hourly fire weather index reports at Cape Canaveral Center, and Canadian Forces Base Gagetown has incorporated the program to continually track weather index and supply data to their management system, which will halt live fire exercises when the fire index warrants a severe risk. The natural evolution in program development saw Remsoft follow WeatherPro with a program that would take the FWI index value into a computer program to calculate fire behaviour prediction. Remsoft’s FBP93 (Fire Behavior Program, developed in 1993) was the first fire behaviour program for Canadian agencies. A more advanced product FBP97 became a national standard. US wild fire agencies have widely adopted Behave by Remsoft 97 (BBR97) which generates data for the US-based fire behaviour system.

The newest fire behaviour product from Remsoft is Behave (Behave by Remsoft5) which provides data outputs for both the Canadian or US systems. On fires close to the border, where agencies in both countries are concerned about a fire’s behaviour, it can be critically important to be able to switch “language” to get a clear understanding of the data to agencies on both sides of the border. The two language function is essential when fire personnel from both countries are assigned to work on the same fires. “From a personnel, logistics and safety point of view, it is important to be able to get accurate and detailed information to crews in the language that they understand and can work with,” explained Ugo Feunekes.

Remsoft products use a Windows-based format, which makes it a familiar and user-friendly format. Data and reports can be generated as graphs, spreadsheet tables or text messages. WeatherPro can be run by Windows 95 or newer operating systems and features standard mouse click and familiar drop menus. Weatherpro has many features which fire fighting staff can use to predict how weather changes may affect the FWI. One key attribute is the ability to enter weather forecast data to get the next day’s “picture,” and have this automatically revised when actual weather observations are received. The system has the ability to store weather data from the years 1852 through to 2040. This historical database allows users to call up past weather patterns and run scenarios to predict how weather patterns may evolve in the short term. Weatherpro can also be programmed with auto timers, to complete automatic data collection, graphing and calculations, so that non-technical staff can monitor the system, and pass the critical data on to the personnel who need it.

Greer says that because data input is very straightforward and the results immediate, he generally sets up a portable weather station on even small fires and uses a laptop computer to generate a local FWI. “We get good data from the weather stations, but the actual weather on the fire could be quite a bit different from what is happening at the weather station. The station could have received a shower that didn’t get to the fire area so the index may not be representative, or winds could be gusting and creating different situations at the fire scene. We have to know exactly what is happening at the fire so we can make strategic decisions and, most importantly, provide for the safety of fire fighting personnel.” With accurate weather data, fire behaviour specialists have the ability to calculate fire behaviour probability and have a pretty good idea how the fire may advance. However, fire behaviour depends on a myriad of physical variables in addition to the weather. Fuel types and topography are just two of the significant variables that will provide major differences in fire behaviour.

Tim Greer’s first impressions of fire fighting in the mountains near Kamloops, BC, was that elevation and terrain would have a major impact on weather patterns and fire behaviour even in a relatively small geographic area. “The first thing I did was to sit down with the fire weather meteorologist and go over the maps covering the fire. That exercise was critical for good communications. We both had familiarity with the area and I could ask for detailed conditions on a specific sector, and he could provide the kind of detail I needed to run fire behaviour scenarios and make good decisions that resulted in safe and effective fire attack strategies.”

Remsoft continues to dedicate resources to research and development in both the fire management and forest management sectors. New development directions come about both from in-house initiatives to advance their products and from co-operative projects with users looking for customized features. Remsoft’s Ugo Feunekes said that future advances to Behave will probably include incorporating available GIS data to provide faster and more detailed fire behaviour information. But one of the technical challenges to deal with will be the format of the GIS data and the accuracy of elevation data that it can provide to fire spread prediction modeling.

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