Fighting fires with better data

Fighting fires with better data

When firefighters battle wildfires on the west coast, they typically go into a situation without knowing how large the fire is or how fast it’s growing. Now, with the help of NASA, firefighters will able to use satellite-based tools to better detect fires and predict their behavior.

With high-resolution data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite, the Forest Service is using computer models to detect fires in more detail than ever before, and predict how a fire will change direction based on weather and land conditions.

Suomi’s NPP Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) nearly triples the resolution of fire observations.  The enhanced VIIRS fire detection tool also can enable detection every 12 hours or less, and provides more detail and better tracking of fire lines when fires are burning for a long time. In addition, active fire locations are available within minutes of the satellite’s flyover through data processing facilities at the Forest Service’s Remote Sensing Applications Center.

The extra time is critical in giving firefighters a chance to get to the fire before it becomes uncontrollable.

The demand for timely, high-quality fire information has increased in recent years, as large fires have become more common and catastrophic. Wildfires in the United States burn an average of 7 million acres of land each year. For the last 10 years, the Forest Service and Department of Interior have spent a combined average of about $1.5 billion annually on wildfire suppression, NASA said. Colorado already has signed on to use the model as part of its firefighting efforts beginning next year.

“We hope that by infusing these higher resolution detection data and fire behavior modeling outputs into tactical fire situations, we can lessen the pressure on those working in fire management,” said Wilfrid Schroeder, leader of the VIIRS team.

The VIIRS was developed with assistance from NASA’s Earth Science Applied Sciences Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System Proving Ground Program, and the Forest Service.

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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