Detecting wildfires using radar and satellites

Radar image detecting wildfire smoke plumeSome employees of the National Weather Service in Glasgow, Montana have written a description of how on April 3, 2012 they detected two fires using radar and satellite imagery. Below are some excerpts from their document, which was the source of the two images displayed here.

…As our forecasters were working during the day on April 3rd, they noticed some plumes on satellite imagery, on a day where there weren’t any clouds for hundreds of miles in all directions. They called Richland County dispatch to check and see if there were any fires, and were notified that there were at least two fires, one in southwestern Richland County, the other in northeastern Dawson County.

As the day warmed up, the winds increased from a southerly direction, and the humidity dropped from around 68% at 8 am to below 20 percent after 1 pm. According to Rob Gilbert with the Sidney fire department, an area that had been burned during the weekend had reignited and quickly grew out of control as the winds blew the top layer of ash off the old burn. In all, the southwest Richland County Fire burned at least 1000 acres of land, and two abandoned farmsteads, northwest of Richey, MT.

The smoke plume from the Richland County fire was high enough that we were able to detect it on the Glasgow weather radar. The fire was located about 75 miles east-southeast of the radar, and at that distance, the lowest level of the radar beam (0.5 degrees) would put the radar beam at around 7,500 to 8,000 feet AGL. So, the smoke plume rose at least 1.5 to 2 miles high in the atmosphere.

Photo of wildfire smoke column in Richland County, Montana


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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

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