Los Angeles County wants to use satellites to detect fires

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is lobbying the U.S. military to use their missile warning satellites to detect wildfires in their county. Some of the members of their Board have the opinion that the most populous county in the United States with 9.8 million people, most with cell phones, has a problem with the early detection of wildfires. The Board has previously considered automated detection systems on mountain peaks that would detect heat or smoke, but now they seem to be focused on satellites.

Here is an excerpt from an article at spacenews.com:

“The infrared sensors constantly look for the telltale signature of a flame from a missile launch, with automatic analysis of the data,” according to the letter signed by all five county supervisors. “Since a missile flame has characteristics similar to a wildland fire, the satellites should be able to detect forest and brush fires just as effectively.”

U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, which scan the globe every 10 seconds, have proved their ability to spot wildfires. In 1994 and 1995, the U.S. Air Force participated in the Hazard Support Program, according to Anthony Roake, spokesman for the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. That program, led by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, combined information derived from U.S. military and civil satellites to detect wildfires in the United States and volcanic activity around the globe and reported the results to local agencies. Additional testing of the Hazard Support Program continued in the late 1990s, said Richard Davies, executive director of the Western Disaster Center, a nonprofit research organization based in Mountain View, Calif.

In spite of successful demonstrations, the Hazard Support System was halted in 2001 when the military was ready to hand off the program but no civil federal agency offered the funding needed to operate and maintain it, government officials said. Nearly a decade later, the necessary ground equipment still exists to enable the DSP constellation to assist in wildfire detection; however, a period of operational testing would be required to prove its utility, according to Dee Pack, remote sensing department director for the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. “Since 2000, the technology has been used for other applications. It could be used for fire detection again if the government wanted to do that.”

There are definitely some remote areas in North America that could benefit from a satellite-based fire detection system. Spread across the continent, the cost per acre would most likely be small, especially since the satellites are already in operation. Multi-tasking these missile detection satellites could be in our best interests. The “civilian agencies” that refused to step up in 2001 to help make this happen need to reconsider.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Los Angeles County wants to use satellites to detect fires”

  1. Very interesting.

    AFAIK, we don’t even have the contracted fixed-wing spotter aircraft in Connecticut that originally replaced the fire towers.

    And with recent budget cuts, the State Police helicopter is grounded and the pilots who were put back in cruisers seem to have “blue flu” when called in to fly.

    It’s not that we face the magnitude of problems folks do in other places, but the air support sure has helped a few times over the years locate the source of smoke deep in the woods and guide folks in on trails. A few years back the Chiefs were tickled pink when the State Police chopper landed and printed them an aerial photograph of one such fire.

    I do suspect we’ll see unmanned aerial vehicles become much more common for police and similar surveillance. You could have several in the air, monitored from a central location, for the cost of a single helicopter.

  2. Yep, another lame-ass-idea. When Mother Nature wants to show who is Boss in Southern California detection is not a problem. The “sat system” could be of great benefit to wildland fire agencies “IF” use in a timely manner to dispatch the appropriate suppression resources. IF???????


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