Wildfire Detection

Within five minutes of discovering wildfires, Agriculture and Forestry (AAF) Forestry Division has a mandate to report all fires to the respective fire centres within the province.

To achieve this, the Wildfire Management Branch uses a variety of planned and unplanned detection agents:

Planned detection agents

  • Aerial patrols with airplanes and helicopters
  • Lookout towers
  • Ground patrols
  • Water patrol

Unplanned detection agents

  • 310-FIRE public reporting
  • Cooperation of other industries such as oil and gas, forestry, and aviation
  • Government staff

Aerial Detection

The Forestry and Emergency Response Division uses aerial detection to deploy airplanes with aerial observers and helicopters with firefighters. Also called loaded patrols, these aircraft and personnel provide aerial detection during periods of increased fire danger and over known gaps in the fixed detection system.

Air patrols are conducted to detect holdover lightning fires still smouldering from recent storms and/or to monitor land-clearing activities in settlement areas. Loaded patrols are flown during higher hazard periods to achieve prompt, effective initial attack when fire is detected. Aerial detection accounts for 20 per cent of the discoveries of wildfires each year.

Lookout Towers

Lookout towers are located where visibility is favourable to detect and report fires. The lookouts consist of one- or two-storey alpine cabins (located on top of a mountain) or steel towers located on the highest ground throughout the boreal forest. Alberta has 127 lookout sites within its Forest Protection Area: these are used to detect fire starts throughout the summer.

Lookout Observers, working for a period of 30 to 180 days depending on their work location and the season’s fire danger, discover approximately 40 percent of fires annually. Each of these lookout towers is responsible for an area of 5,027 square kilometres—roughly seven and a half times the area of Edmonton, Alberta.

For more information about lookout towers and the roles and responsibilities of lookout observers, see:

Rules to follow at a lookout site

  • Lookout observers play a very important role in early fire detection. It is imperative that they are not distracted from doing this duty.
  • Lookout dwellings are for private, not public, use. Things like communications, water, food, or shelter will not be provided to the public. The dwelling at the lookout site is the observer's residence. Please do not expect a tour of the cabin.
  • For safety reasons, the public is forbidden to climb the lookout tower. Lookout staff receive special training on fall protection systems required to climb the towers.
  • Be careful not to adjust, use or disturb any equipment on site. Weather instruments are critical to forest protection operations. They help decide when and how many firefighters, helicopters and other resources are required.

Infrared Scanning

During the early spring, various industries use infrared scanning to scan winter burning projects such as brush piles, power and pipeline construction, as well as site clearings. The infrared scans detect holdover heat sources that have the potential to cause fires.

The Forest Protection Branch also uses various infrared technologies:

  • As a mapping tool to obtain the boundaries of ongoing fires
  • To determine the most effective location for air tanker drops on fires.
  • To spot check winter burning projects

Unplanned Detection

Another valuable component of the fire detection system includes fires reported by unplanned detection sources. These sources include:

  • The general public
  • Other government agencies
  • Various industries such as forestry and oil and gas

Unplanned detection sources can account for up to 40 percent of fire discoveries in any given year. Anybody can report a wildfire by calling the toll-free 310-FIRE hotline number. Active participation by the public is an asset to the overall detection system.


The detection unit is always seeking new and/or better technology to detect wildfires. The unit is conducting research to determine how well the South African “Forest Watch” system detects fire while in auto-pilot mode.

Research is exploring the ways lookout observers might use Forest Watch's hardware and software to monitor the areas for which they are responsible but cannot normally see because of geographical restrictions.

For more information on the Forest Watch automated fire detection program, visit:


Employee safety is AAF’s first priority: each employee is responsible for his or her own safety and for the safety of others. The detection unit is always looking for new ways to ensure workers’ safety and establish more secure worksites.

All fire operations and activities reflect AAF’s commitment to employee safety. This commitment is underlined by the department’s health and safety management system, established per industry and government standards.

In late 2008, use of this system by the Heartland Region earned staff a Certificate of Recognition. The Heartland Region includes the:

  • Foothills Area
  • Hinton Training Centre
  • Finance Group from Edmonton
  • Lesser Slave Area
  • Smoky Area
  • Woodlands Area

Updated: Dec 3, 2019