Fire Protection Agency Enhances Accuracy of Weather Maps with Surfer

The Canadian Province of Quebec uses the analytics and gridding functions in Surfer to dramatically enhance the quality of weather data in its forest fire information system. Without Surfer, the automated interpolation and mapping performed on an hourly basis would have to be conducted in a full-feature GIS package at considerably greater expense.

Referred to as SOPFEU for its French acronym, the Quebec Forest Fire Protection Society is tasked with generating more than 100 weather maps and related charts every day. Available online in digital formats, these documents are created primarily for use by provincial firefighting commanders to prepare for forest fires when conditions are dangerous and to battle the blazes once they have begun.

Weather Maps Before Surfer

“Everything related to fighting forest fires is weather driven – preparation and protection as well as positioning of resources,” said Olivier Lundqvist, SOPFEU Director of Development & Specialized Services.

Before deploying Surfer, the hourly weather maps produced by SOPFEU reflected meteorological conditions across Quebec based on point-source reports of temperature, wind speed/direction, humidity and precipitation without interpolation. If, for example, one of the province’s 194 weather stations reported a temperature of 24° C, the entire area around that point, defined by an arbitrary polygon, was assigned the same temperature.

“The way we were displaying weather information had little scientific value,” said Lundqvist, noting there is an average distance of 80 kilometers between stations, and conditions vary considerably.

Working with Surfer analytics tools, SOPFEU’s weather office staff wrote algorithms to interpolate weather conditions between stations on 1.2-kilometer grids, much smaller than the massive polygons once used. The interpolations take into account weather reports at each station and those around it and then factor in meteorological influencers, such as elevation changes and distance from water bodies.

The result is a province-wide map representing realistic weather conditions on a very fine scale and generated automatically every hour. In addition, SOPFEU has written numerous scripts in the Surfer Scripter tool to produce color-coded thematic maps showing temperatures, precipitation or wind speeds. Staff meteorologists often use Surfer graphics functions to draw in weather fronts and high-pressure ridges, which indicate coming changes in conditions.

“They let fire fighters know when a front will pass or the winds will shift,” said Lundqvist.

Relative humidity weather map created in Surfer
Forecast relative humidity based on four different numerical weather models.

With the automated maps created each hour, SOPFEU is in the process of creating maps in Surfer that represent even more complex conditions and situations. Referred to as Forest Fire Weather Indices, these vector maps alert commanders to areas that are more prone to potential fires. The most popular of these is a Head Fire Intensity map which combines temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and precipitation forecasts and overlays them on fuel type layers to pinpoint where the difficulty of controlling a fire would be greatest.

“Fuel type usually refers to the species of tree in the area,” said Lundqvist. “Using Surfer, this index will soon be generated at the same 1.2-km grid as the other products.

SOPFEU could create the automated maps and related products in a GIS package, but the cost of purchasing the license and hiring a trained GIS specialist would far exceed the expense of using Surfer, according to Lundqvist.

Consecutive days of little rain weather map created in Surfer
Consecutive days since last rainfall
Map of potential fire starts created in Surfer
Potential Fire Starts
Probability of lightning map created in Surfer
Probability of Lightning

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