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Fire fighters in space

Eyes high in the sky are providing information that may help firefighters battle the devastating blazes in Southern California. As this ScienCentral News video reports, NASA is lending some help from outer space. Last year, fires burned nearly 7 million acres and destroyed more than 800 homes in the United States. With limited firefighting resources, fire managers prioritize based on which blazes are threatening lives. Now they’re getting some help on that front from outer space.

“Traditionally, fires would have been detected by using spotters in towers, airplanes, and local information,” says Rob Sohlberg, geography professor at the University of Maryland and co- leader of the NASA Wildfire Response Team. “But now, by the use of satellite assets, we’re able to image the entire country twice per day and provide updates of all active fires within Alaska and the lower 48 states. This allows managers to make those important decisions about where fires are relative to urban areas and infrastructure, and how best to distribute the available assets for confronting those fires.”

Called “Sensor Web”, the satellite system operates with no human intervention, clearing the way for rescuers to target the most threatening fires. Two NASA satellites locate fires by detecting heat within broad areas, allowing fire managers to view all of the active fires in the country on a daily basis. “This information is then received by a direct broadcast station, basically a satellite dish that the Forest Service maintains in Salt Lake City,” says Sohlberg. The system uses geographic information systems to map currently burning areas relative to areas which have burned in previous days. During the day, the satellites can also take a snapshot image, which can then be superimposed over the imagery of the smoke and the fire. “Managers can see the shifting wind direction and the growth of the burn scar on a daily basis,” he says.

When a satellite spots a fire that looks like trouble (see image at top of this story), it triggers a higher resolution satellite to go get a closer look and send the pictures to fire managers. If a fire looks dangerous, that triggers a finer resolution satellite to focus within a hundred feet of the blaze. “It’s repeatable and it’s very much automated, and can precisely locate the locations of fires relative to other types of risk areas, such as areas with heavy fuels, or areas with infrastructure, or areas with at-risk human populations,” Sohlberg says. The system can even help after the fire is out. “In the post-fire situation, then finer spatial resolution instruments, such as the LANDSAT series and commercial imaging satellites, are used to precisely define the areas which actually burned and the severity of that burn,” explains Sohlberg. “This information is in turn used to direct mapping efforts of burn severity to be used in rehabilitation efforts, to control erosion, and stop the invasion of invasive plant species.”

Sohlberg believes this technology will help more than just fire managers. “The ultimate goal of sensor web technology would be to continuously monitor natural hazards globally,” says Sohlberg, “and to provide information to disaster management agencies, to wildfire control agencies, and to humanitarian relief agencies to be able to best use their assets for things happening in particularly remote areas.” For example, he adds, “in some areas of the world people may not know that a flood is impending until water starts lapping at the front door. By use of Sensor Web technologies, one would hope to improve this global monitoring and to speedily provide this information to the responsible government agencies.”