Wildfire risk mitigation for mining operations
Canada’s forests have become increasingly flammable because of forest insects and diseases, a changing climate, history of effective wildfire suppression, and past forest management practices. This increase in flammability, coupled with increasing development into forested ecosystems, has contributed to elevated wildfire risk to life, property, and critical infrastructure.
This year, mining companies operating in Canada and the United States faced unprecedented challenges, witnessing large asset losses and increased liabilities because of wildfires. Mining operations, being in the wildlands and often in remote locations, are typically surrounded by forested or grassland ecosystems within which wildfire is a natural process. These wildfires can destroy mining infrastructure, disrupt supply of power and operations, and put employee safety at risk.
It is critical for the mining industry to understand wildfire risk, how this reality could impact their business, and how they can potentially cause or contribute to impactful wildfires. Wildfire risk mitigation can then be designed in response to this understanding. For the mining sector, it is key to understand both (i) the risks of wildfire impacting infrastructure, staff, and operations and (ii) the potential impacts of fire from your operations spreading and impacting “values at risk” on the landscape.
Mitigation of this risk requires a holistic management approach to both wildfire “from” infrastructure and operations, as well as risk “to” infrastructure and staff. Solutions are multifaceted and approached through four phases: operational; planning; partnerships and communication; and analytics, research, and development.
Appropriate risk mitigation processes, such as the examples in the figure, can establish a rigorous foundation that enables infrastructure managers to assess, prioritize, and reduce wildfire risk systematically. Further, mitigation efforts are most effective when following a risk management framework (such as ISO 31000) and using the latest wildfire science and analysis methods to inform the decision-making process.
Mining companies exposed to wildfire risk should ask themselves, “where is infrastructure most exposed to the threat of wildfire?” Operationally, tools and systems can be developed to identify these threats. The process will identify operational decisions needing wildfire intelligence as well as identify existing tools or tools to be developed to provide information.
The key is identifying infrastructure at highest risk (considering consequence of loss), including infrastructure critical to business operations, infrastructure vulnerable to wildfire, and where infrastructure is exposed to wildfire hazard. In support of this, Forsite works with our clients to generate spatial data and risk maps through a vulnerability and exposure analysis. Our process identifies and ranks the risk of wildfires spreading to and impacting infrastructure and operations. Risk identification focuses on the potential exposure of the infrastructure to wildfire, the vulnerability of the asset and the consequences of impacts, including factors such as cost to replace.
The second key consideration is the potential liability of fires igniting from industrial operations and spreading to vegetated areas and impacting “values at risk” on the landscape. Operationally, mining companies may adopt fire weather and fuels monitoring for current and forecasted fire conditions by assessing current and forecasted weather models, developing accurate fuel maps, aligning mapping products with infrastructure, combining data to generate wildfire hazard, and working to integrate hazard levels with appropriate operational responses.
A more strategic planning solution may be to model the wildfire behaviour potential, under many different weather scenarios, from infrastructure to adjacent values to prioritize areas of higher and lower risk. This process might include identifying fuels, topography mapping, conducting a fire weather analysis and identifying values at risk (such as human life, infrastructure, economic, cultural, and environmental values) to prioritize higher risk areas of operation and to allocate ignition prevention resources to key areas. Wildfire spread modeling can be used to estimate how a wildfire would spread under relatively extreme fire weather conditions from an ignition source (e.g., powerlines) and interact with, and potentially impact, values at risk on the land base.
The risk assessment processes produce risk maps, mapping the highest risk ignition point locations, and high-risk fire areas – which are defined areas most likely to incur fire risk conditions in which a high intensity and fast spreading wildfire could immediately overwhelm initial attack fire suppression resources. Combining this information with other mining and utility services information will be critical in identifying high priority risk mitigation areas. Other data to consider include factors such as asset health and likelihood of an asset starting an ignition.
Finally, from an analytic, research, development perspective, custom tools can be developed to fit specific operational and planning needs, such as alert systems based on weather forecasts, current fire activity, and operational response requirements. Examples of Forsite initiatives include building a web-based mapping platform that displays relevant wildfire information with infrastructure and links wildfire hazard with operational responses as well as designing risk modelling tools that will forecast daily wildfire potential based on current and projected weather conditions.
These solutions support mining companies in making near-real time operational decisions in response to observed and forecasted extreme fire weather conditions and fuel availability, such that appropriate countermeasures can be taken to reduce risk. Secondarily, solutions like this aim to elevate fire weather situational awareness across mining companies’ operations and provide an additional support tool to inform decision making as it relates to preparedness and mitigation activities.
Managing wildfire risk is challenging; it involves people from many different disciplines coordinating an approach. Wildfire specialists often are not geologists, and vice versa. Yet the risk is shared. The ability to learn from and collaborate with each other is key to respond to wildfire risk effectively.
A holistic approach to resiliency combines stakeholders with people from various fire and forest specialties – operational suppression experience (boots on the ground), fire behaviour and ecology, fuel management, fire modeling technology and predictive services specialists, as well as relationships with industry, government agencies, local communities, First Nations, and associations.
Our team has been collaborating closely with mining companies to mitigate both wildfire risk to and from infrastructure and developing innovative wildfire situational awareness products and services that are designed to alert operations during periods of elevated wildfire weather conditions.
The wildfire problem is not going away, and all indications are that it will continue to worsen through time. New, innovative, and multidisciplinary solutions are required to meet the challenge of mitigating risk posed by wildfire.
Joanna Wand is a Forsite wildfire risk specialist. John Davies is a registered professional forester (RPF), a senior wildland fire specialist, and Forsite fire manager. Randy Spyksma is a registered professional forester (RPF), a senior planning forester, and Forsite B.C.