Screenshot of a Canadian government page about the WildFireSat program
22 Sep 2023

After years of worsening record fire seasons Canada creates new dedicated satellite monitoring program for wildfire early detection


Canada is now starting their own satellite-based system called WildFireSat for early detection and prevention of forest fires. 

In an average year, roughly 2.5 million hectares of forest burn across Canada – a number expected to double by 2050 due to climate change, the federal government projects.

CO2 emissions from Canadian wildfires had reached more than 405 megatonnes by September 10, according to an estimate from the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, or Cams.

That’s more than double the previous national annual record of 138 megatonnes in 2014.

This year, forest fire season has broken all records for areas burned, both in terms of total area burned and the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. In the Northwest Territories alone, more than four million hectares have burned, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

In the NWT, Cams data shows, wildfires have released more than 110 megatonnes of carbon in 2023 so far, the greatest amount in a single year on record.

To help tackle the worsening wildfire situation, the Canadian Space Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Canadian Forest Service and the Canadian Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, have teamed up to create a wildfire monitoring satellite system built specifically to be used in fire management operations.

The technology is scheduled to launch in 2029, according to an article on Cabin Radio.

When launched, the $170 million project will enable firefighters on the ground to make near-real time decisions on battling wildfires based on data from a set of satellites, according to a June 9 article in the Toronto Star. 

"Although some satellite-based instruments, such as Nasa’s Modis and Viirs, already gather information on wildfires, existing satellite missions generally aren’t tailored for firefighting", said Colin McFayden, at the Natural Resources Canada’s Great Lakes Forestry Centre.

Instead, existing satellites largely cater to scientific purposes or monitor weather, McFayden said, leaving gaps in the information that fire managers need.

For instance, McFayden said, satellite data currently isn’t available when fire managers need it most, during the “peak burn period,” when fires tend to be most active.

“That’s around 17:00 local time, give or take, depending on where you are in Canada,” he said.

According to McFayden, the WildFireSat system will allow federal agencies to collect data around the peak burn period as well as during early mornings - that´s when fire agencies typically adjust their plans for the day ahead. The goal is to get the data available in less a half hour, or less from when it was collected.

The Canadian Federal government says information gathered through WildFireSat will be used to give information on fire intensity and rate of spread. Data gained from the new satellite system can also help to create more accurate air quality forecasts and measure carbon emissions from fires.

Josh Johnston, primary investigator for the WildFireSat project and a forest fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, says this is the very first time ever that a country is producing a dedicated, operational  fire monitoring satellite: 

“There have been scientific missions that have gone out, but they could only do a small amount of work. We’re talking about an operational system that is dedicated to supporting fire managers. It’s never been done,” Johnston says. 

According to the Canadian Government, this initiative will enhance Canada's ability to manage wildfires in the country. It aims to monitor all active wildfires in Canada from space on a daily basis.


A uniquely Canadian challenge

According to the WildFireSat homepage, eighty-eight percent of Canada's 4 million km2 of forested lands is characterized as boreal forest, and is home to some of the largest and most intense wildfires in the world. Every year, Canada sees about 7,500 wildfires burn over 2.5 million hectares of forest, a territory about half the size of Nova Scotia.

The amount of forest burned by wildfire is projected to double by 2050 due to our changing climate, which is causing longer wildfire seasons, more extreme weather conditions and increased droughts.

Canada spends about $1 billion annually combatting wildfires. However, indirect costs may rise to several billion dollars per year stemming from property loss, damaged infrastructure, industrial shutdowns, evacuations, health-related expenses, and economic losses in a variety of sectors including tourism, forestry, and energy.

The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire was the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, with a total cost of approximately $9 billion.


(Credits: Canadian Space Agency, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, BC Wildfire Service, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services, Yukon Wildland Fire Management, European Union Space Programme (Copernicus Sentinel-2 data, processed by Dromadaire Géo-Innovations), NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA Earth Observatory, Lauren Dauphin and JoshuaStevens, VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE,GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership,, Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and GEOS-5 data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC)