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.

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.