Researchers design satellite to detect wildfires — a step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

A concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires.

FUEGO satellite

Researchers at Berkeley have designed a concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires. Decades ago we relied on a network of lookout towers staffed by employees and later volunteers who observed emerging fires and reported them by telephone or radio. Today most fires are turned in by residents or travelers with cell phones.

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

But if a fire is not detected and reported quickly, rapid initial attack is not possible.

This proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes.

FUEGO satellite
Artist’s concept for FUEGO on orbit (FUEGO Concept Art by R. E. Lafever, LBNL)

While the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it could conceivably save money if it prevents a few megafires like the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park last summer that to date has cost more than $127 million.

The real time detection of new fires is a very worthy goal, but added to this system should be the capability for real time monitoring and mapping of existing fires. The Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety is a system that could track firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

All of this technology exists. It would be expensive to implement, but it could save lives.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

12 thoughts on “Researchers design satellite to detect wildfires — a step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?”

  1. Check out the new VIIRS instrument on the recently launched Suomi NPP satellite- http://viirsfire.geog.umd.edu/. Forest Service research is working to validate and calibrate this instrument as a fire detection system. It promises to be an improvement over the MODIS data currently in use.
    Your last comment on the real-time tracking and mapping of both fire and personnel/resources is right on! That’s been my dream for several years now, and we are getting steadily closer to making it a reality.

  2. Here we are going down the old detection road again. Detection isn’t the problem! Example, Rim fire was only 1/2 acre when first reported. Cal Fire sent an immediate air response. But as mentioned many times before, if you can’t get personnel on a fire quickly enough to take advantage of the air drops you will probably not contain the fire. Here is an interesting piece of info, Cal Fire operates one 1200 gallon tanker for every 800,00 acres of direct Cal Fire protection seven days a week. This has proven to be a successful formula for one of the most wild fire prone areas in the world. So how many fixed wing tankers should the federal government have to accomplish this degree of suppression? At one time in California the Fed fixed wing air tanker program was about one 2000 gallon plus tanker for about the same protected acres on Fed lands.

  3. Back in the late 70’s early 80’s we lit off about 40 decks scattered on the Kern Plateau on the Sequoia N.F. at night. It took about 3 hours to get them all going. Later the next day the military inquired what was going on there. Apparently they picked up the heat emissions of the decks from satellites designed to pick heat signatures of ICBM’s. Bet the advances in technology have increased the resolution even more now. This could improve detection of sleeper lightning fires that aerial recon and lookouts miss.

  4. I agree that early detection is important, but I think firefighter accountability is even more important. The technology already exists. Garmin has GPS tracking collars for hunting dogs. Why this couldn’t be adjusted to track firefighters, I don’t know. The dog wears a collar with a transmitter, and the hunter has a handheld GPS that can update from 5seconds to a minute and a half. These systems can track up to 10 transmitters, and I’m sure with a little work they could track more than that. Each division could run a set of transmitters and keep up with personnel. It just seems that many fatality reports has the same theme of not knowing that the. (Fill in the blank). Was in an area and they got over run . If we can track dogs covering many miles of woods then why can’t we use GPS technology to keep up with firefighters on the ground?

      1. Elizabeth, I hope you are joking, but in case you’re not…. Would YOU want to be the one who tells them that their agency has decided not to equip their radios with off the shelf technology that could possibly have prevented the entrapment and deaths of 24 wildland firefighters in the last eight years?

  5. Bill writes:
    “This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.”

    I’m just not seeing this. At Esperanza, the firefighters were right where their supervisor had left them. At Yarnell Hill, their supervisor was not watching icons of them dying on his iPad “in real time” — he was there with them, doing it. In neither case was the location or active nature of the fire much of a mystery to anyone.

    The missing information had to do with sudden changes in fire direction and/or ROS and/or intensity. Near as I can tell, at the instant those things changed there was already insufficient reaction time to change outcomes — even assuming that your omniscient remote safety monitor could break into high-tempo comms and ops with some new and better plan.

    OTOH, if these firefighters woke up the day before their fatal encounters with a different mindset, based on different training, different supervision, and different experience — and gone to work for an employer with a different culture of “aggressively but providing for safety first” — they very likely would have all come home just fine. No miracle shelters; no high tech trackers; no DIVS busy flying FLIR drones. But working within the limits of whatever skills and technologies are at hand, same as any hazardous task is prudently undertaken.

    If I can fight fire safely and effectively with boots and a shovel, give me a hard hat and gloves. If I can still do it, give me a radio. Still ok, maybe give me a shelter or a sensemaking tool. But if at some point I’m missing important stuff or making risky decisions, I need to go back to get the basics better — not continue on to the next complexity level or vendor product.

    I see the Holy Grail quest as simply one that seeks to entrain every resource in the known universe to the cause of wildland fire suppression. Which if successful will still leave firefighters dying from flawed execution of basic principles.

    I’m with Elizabeth on the dog collars.

    1. Tyler, you are entitled to you own opinions, but not your own facts. You said:

      I’m just not seeing this. At Esperanza, the firefighters were right where their supervisor had left them.

      And:

      The missing information had to do with sudden changes in fire direction and/or ROS and/or intensity. Near as I can tell, at the instant those things changed there was already insufficient reaction time to change outcomes — even assuming that your omniscient remote safety monitor could break into high-tempo comms and ops with some new and better plan.

      The facts are that on the Esperanza Fire, Branch II and the Captain of Engine 57 had an understanding that the Engine crew would not remain at the Octagon house, where they eventually died (see page 9 of the USDA OIG report). The crew was supposed to go to an area identified as a safety zone and not try to defend the house. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump.

      If Branch II, an Operations Section Chief, or a Safety Officer had access to real time information about the location of their resources on the fire, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.

      You also said:

      At Yarnell Hill, their supervisor was not watching icons of them dying on his iPad “in real time” — he was there with them, doing it.

      The person that was supervising the 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire was the Operations Section Chief. In the report on page 22, he tells the crew, Granite Mountain Hotshots, to “hunker and be safe”, which usually means find a safe spot and stay there. On page 27 Ops tells ASM2 about the crew, “They’re in a good place. They’re safe…”

      The Blue Ridge Hotshots thought Granite Mountain was walking north to a ranch house safety zone north of their location. OPS thought the crew was safely in the black. He did not know the 19 firefighters were walking in the green toward a ranch south of their location. If Ops or a Safety Officer with access to the location of all fire resources had known the crew’s location as they first began their fatal trek, it is likely the entrapment could have been prevented.

      The Holy Grail, as I envision it, would enable radios carried by firefighters to transmit their location in real time which would then show up on a remote display (anything from a cell phone or a 7″ tablet, up to a laptop computer) that would be monitored by a Safety Officer, Branch Director, Ops Chief, Branch Director, or Division Supervisor. The display would also show the real time location of the fire. Knowing either of these in real time would enhance the safety of firefighters. Knowing both is even better.

      Luddites who oppose technology and want everything to remain the same will never be in favor of this concept. I understand that, and recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But not their own facts.

      1. Well, I don’t think that I have created my own facts. I do get that we don’t make the same read on what is known and reported about these events, and that we don’t share the same expectations for the success of some proposed solutions. I can’t speak for the Luddites.

  6. I totally agree with Bill. In my opinion facing wildfires with no GPS location of the crews is something that we will see soon as nonsense. There is plenty of technology solutions, which are a basic tool to build a safety environment in our time. If you want to use Radio based tracking, there are also solutions based both on analog or digital. Satellite connected locators like the Spot Gen 3 are available for 150 $ and 200$/yrs. the service. Even for many areas, inexpensive based apps can make the work.

    Location Based Services is out there for everything, and after 18 yrs. working on technologies, now is the time where IT tools can be helpful to face wildfires in a safer and more efficient way. Real time monitoring of the fire and the resources must be the base to any wildfire management system. And real time means exactly that, not “I’m going to fly to get a perimeter, land, edit, plot and copy or send an email”.

    “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

    BTW Interesting the Satellite proposed, although I don’t see the detection a problem (monitoring based on Satellite is a more realistic use). The same name and the concept is pretty similar to a finally non developed constellation proposed in Europe in 2000, and was very close to operational in 2005. FUEGO satellite constellation, 2000 : http://www.dlr.de/Portaldata/49/Resources/dokumente/archiv3/0601.pdf

  7. While I support advancements in technology. We some times think they are the cure all. A crew of 20 men when spread out still has only 1 blip on the screen. Also for us who have worked in the mountains canyons and steep areas will the satellite actually pick up crews in the mountains IA and the first 48 might be difficult on the Sawtooth its hard in many pleases to hit a cellphone or a radio. Just saying it could be more difficult than it sounds.

  8. Ham radio guys are using relatively inexpensive equipment that couples GPS receivers to analog handheld radios. This small package transmits real time location information which can be mapped on a screen. In the big picture of things, if you could tap into an incident repeater net you could send this info back to the ICP, or wherever. It’s called Automatic Position Reporting System. Something like this could easily be adapted for wildland fire use.

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