Broaden scope of Canada's weather alert system to account for wildfires, expert urges

OTTAWA — As wildfires rage in western Canada, a communications and broadcasting policy expert says the national weather alerting system should account for a wider range of extreme events.

Monica Auer of Canada's Forum for Research and Policy in Communications said emergency notifications should be sent out for any events that have the potential to threaten lives, such as wildfires.

"I'd say Canadians believe that they are entitled to rely on their communication system to receive warnings if life or property, or both, are at risk," said Auer.

As of now, the National Public Alerting System — publicly known as Alert Ready — issues emergency notifications for tornadoes and severe storms.

A federal regulatory policy drafted in 2014 said alert messages should be issued for situations presenting "imminent or unfolding dangers to life."

The federal broadcast regulator said in the policy that this included, but was not limited to, tornadoes, forest fires, industrial disasters and tsunamis.

Erik de Groot, an associate director with Environment Canada, had no comment on the question of expanding the weather alerting system to include events such as wildfires or heat waves.

Since the summer of 2018, Environment Canada has used national weather alerts to warn of tornadoes by broadcasting them on television and radio stations as well as through mobile phone notifications.

In 2021, the national weather and climate agency added severe storms with at least seven centimetres of hail, or 170 km/h in wind speeds and greater to the alert system.

Nearly 2,300 alerts have been issued under the Alert Ready system from 2019 to Aug. 13, 2023. While most alerts were weather-related, some involved missing children or civic emergencies.

The goal is to get tornado and storm notices out to the public 15 minutes in advance of weather events striking.

De Groot said the alert system has "matured" since its inception.

"We've seen a greater uptake, we're able to get our alerts out to people that may not be aware," said de Groot.

He said forecasting weather is complex and there are cases when tornadoes and storms form very quickly, making things difficult to predict.

"We've improved our radar network over the last five years. We're finishing up that, which has helped us, but it's not going to be perfect and probably it will never be perfect," de Groot said.

De Groot said Environment Canada is also developing a process to improve the geographical accuracy of alerts.

"As things stand right now, we send out our alerts based on zones," he said.

"They're predefined zones normally around (a) city, or a county, or a collection of counties, and the forecaster has to light up the entire area."

But, de Groot said, the new process would use radar, satellite and other technology to send alerts to more precise zones that would be affected.

A study by researchers with Western University's Northern Tornadoes Project, assessing the performance of Environment Canada's Alert Ready in relation to tornadoes, pointed to flaws in the system.

Only 12 per cent of alerts were issued before Canadian tornadoes in 2019 to 2021 actually started.

The study said 70 per cent of Canadian tornadoes in that span were unalerted and 17 per cent had public notices issued after the tornado's recorded start time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2023.

Liam Fox, The Canadian Press