“How Researchers are Working to Improve Wildfire Evacuations”
“Escaping the Flames”
Charlie Kesslar will never forget the day he was forced to flee Drayton Valley, Alta. due to a wildfire. The town was hit with an evacuation order that sounded a call to action for Kesslar and his wife. Packed up with their belongings, the couple faced a harrowing journey as they made their way out of town in heavy traffic. After what should have been a 25-minute drive, it ended up taking almost four hours, leaving them at their destination at 3:30 a.m. Not knowing what the future held was scary, and Kesslar was one of many Canadians affected by the worst wildfire season the country has seen in a century.
The Evacuation Process
Stephen Wong, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta, along with a team of researchers is working on ways to make the evacuation process smoother for residents of communities affected by wildfires. The team is conducting research on five communities – Three in B.C. (Quesnel, Salmon Arm, and Nelson) and two in Alberta (Whitecourt and Canmore) and creating evacuation simulation models based on each community’s wildfire exposure, human behavior, and traffic simulation. Wong’s main focus is on human behavior, sending out surveys to the residents of these communities to understand the decisions made by evacuees. This information can help determine what resources might be needed in different communities and different methods of communication that can be used to encourage evacuations.
Jen Beverly, an associate professor studying wildland fire at the University of Alberta is focusing on the biophysical environment around a community, to determine where a fire may ignite and where it might spread. This information is then overlaid onto maps showing road networks in these communities to inform evacuation planning and infrastructure. The research and data collected by this team will help communities generate wildfire evacuation models to effectively plan for and deal with disaster situations.
Preparing for the Future
The research project started last year and was slightly paused during the 2023 wildfire season to allow field partners to focus on real-time wildfire response. It is a crucial step in understanding the potential vulnerability of different communities to wildfires. The effect of fires in unexpected regions must be taken into account, and the research project aims to create a strategic wildfire evacuation plan. The team estimates the project will be complete by early 2025.
This research will help inform and enhance evacuation planning in communities as well as contribute to better infrastructure and transportation systems to help during times of disaster. The goal is to improve the evacuation process for residents affected by wildfires and other disasters across Canada. By making the right changes and being better prepared, future wildfire evacuations might not have to be as chaotic and time-consuming as ones in the past. With an efficient and strategic plan in place, communities can mitigate the impact and damage caused by wildfires, ultimately saving countless lives and valuable resources.