New satellite data aids wildfire efforts

Wildfires in Canada send thick plumes of smoke streaming across the Great Lakes region. Photo via NASA Earth Observatory.

Real-time info and detailed imaging helps firefighter get the jump on dangerous blazes

Staff Report

FRISCO — New satellite-based technologies developed by NASA have already helped firefighters in South Africa respond to dangerous wildfires, and could help resource managers in the U.S. get a jump on blazes that threaten communities.

The new fire detection tool uses data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite to detect smaller fires in more detail than previous space-based products. The high-resolution data have been used with a cutting-edge computer model to predict how a fire will change direction based on weather and land conditions.

Data from the satellite pinpoints fire activity on a much finer scale than previous space-based information — down from a 1,000 meters to 375 meters, which is transforming how satellite remote sensing data are used in support of wildfire management.

“The high-resolution data gleaned from VIIRS are available in a short time period and significantly enhances the Forest Service’s current strategic fire detection and monitoring capabilities,” said Brad Quayle, program lead at the USFS Remote Sensing Applications Center in Salt Lake City. “They are welcomed by the end users we serve in the interagency wildfire management community.”

Compared to its predecessors, the enhanced system enables detection every 12 hours or less of much smaller fires and provides more detail and consistent tracking of fire lines during long duration wildfires, which is critical for early warning systems and support of routine mapping of fire progression.

Active fire locations are available to users within minutes from the satellite overpass, processed through a model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The model uses data on weather conditions and the land surrounding an active fire to predict 12-18 hours in advance whether a blaze will shift direction.

Colorado recently decided to incorporate the weather-fire model in its firefighting efforts beginning with the 2016 fire season.

In 2014, an international field campaign was organized in South Africa’s Kruger National Park to validate fire detection products including the new active fire data. In advance of that campaign, the Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa, an early adopter of the VIIRS 375m fire product, put it to use during several large wildfires in Kruger.

“We had some serious wildfires in September 2014, and the VIIRS 375-meter data performed excellently,” said Philip Frost of the Meraka Institute.

The demand for timely, high-quality fire information has increased in recent years. Wildfires in the United States burn an average of 7 million acres of land each year. For the last 10 years, the USFS and Department of Interior have spent a combined average of about $1.5 billion annually on wildfire suppression.

The multispectral imaging capabilities of the Suomi NPP VIIRS instrument support atmospheric studies and a variety of operational products including imaging of hurricanes, sea surface temperature, sea ice, landscapes, and the detection of fires, smoke and atmospheric aerosols.

Active fire maps of the United States are available online at:


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