New satellites can aid in management of wildfires

Imagery from GOES 16 showed dramatic smoke plumes from the Camp Fire

Screenshot from the GOES 16 time-lapse of the Camp Fire.

The NASA article below lays out how the agency believes the imagery from recently launched satellites can assist in the detection and management of wildfires.

GOES-16, operating as NOAA’s GOES East satellite, is proving to be an invaluable asset in detecting wildfires and helping forecasters provide proactive tactical decision-support services. The satellite’s main instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), offers three times more spectral channels, four times increased resolution, and five times faster coverage than the previous GOES imager. This means a much more detailed look at fire conditions, faster detection of hot spots, and the ability to track fire progression and spread in real time.

National Weather Service (NWS) incident meteorologists (IMETs) are using GOES-16 data to assist firefighting efforts. IMETs who deploy to wildfires are instrumental to the mission. An IMET’s first priority is to keep firefighters and the public safe amid rapidly changing wildfire conditions. During the peak of the Camp Fire in northern California in November 2018, the fire was advancing at a rate of over 100 football fields every minute. A shift in the winds could easily put firefighters in danger.

GOES East captured imagery of the Camp Fire in northern California on November 8, 2018. The wildfire developed in the early morning hours and spread quickly within very windy and dry weather conditions. Hot spots and a large plume of smoke are seen in this fire temperature RGB (red-green-blue) imagery is created with Advanced Baseline Imager bands 7, 6, and 5 (shortwave and near infrared bands), which are used to detect hot spots. To make this animation, the fire temperature imagery is made partially transparent and placed over a GeoColor enhancement, so both the fire’s hot spots and smoke plume are visible.

Timely satellite imagery is critical, life-saving information in a dynamic fire environment. In the past, IMETs had a single low-resolution image that updated every 15 minutes – typically the image was already 20 minutes old when it arrived to the forecaster. Now, GOES-16 frequently detects fires before they are spotted on the ground – often 10 to 15 minutes before emergency notifications to 911.

Alex Hoon, the NWS IMET for both the Camp and Carr Fires in California in 2018, says GOES-16 is crucial to an IMET’s mission to protect lives and property. “Now, forecasters are able to get incredible high-resolution images of the fire every single minute in the field, directly supporting firefighters who are engaged in the fire. Not only is this helping firefighters to more effectively fight fire, but more importantly, it’s helping to keep firefighters safe so that they can also come home to their families,” said Hoon.

GOES-16 is also used to pinpoint the exact location of a fire after reports of smoke. On July 2, 2018, the Pueblo County, Colorado, Emergency Management Office called the NWS Pueblo Weather Forecast Office (WFO) for assistance locating the source of smoke reported near Custer/Fremont/Pueblo County lines. GOES-16 showed a hotspot in northeast Custer County and the Pueblo WFO was able to provide the exact coordinates of what would become the Adobe Fire. Being in a remote and wooded area, the early and more precise geolocation of the fire was helpful for getting crews on the scene quickly.

GOES-16 observations are not just valuable for detecting wildfires but are also critical to observing and monitoring smoke from those fires. GOES-16’s ability to monitor smoke plumes in near-real time is particularly useful in directing firefighting efforts from the air. Deploying airplanes and helicopters to spray fire retardant is often hampered due to poor visibility. GOES-16 can help guide decisions for deploying flights by providing information on the exact location and motion of smoke from a fire. The smoke detection and monitoring information also enable better air quality forecasts.

The benefits from GOES-16 aren’t just seen during a fire but are also important in monitoring burn scars and predicting flash flood events from rain events after a fire. GOES-16 provides critical data for the entire lifecycle of a fire disaster – from drought to fire to floods and landslides.

The new capabilities from GOES-16 are a game-changer for fire weather forecasts and warnings. Soon, GOES-16 will be joined by its twin satellite, GOES-17, as NOAA’s operational GOES West. GOES-17 will provide even better resolution for U.S. West Coast firefighting efforts than GOES-16 due to its location over the Pacific Ocean.

New channels on the ABI provide more information to forecasters and the high resolution and rapid scanning give them high-definition images as often as every minute. Data from the ABI is helping forecasters locate hotspots, detect changes in a fire’s behavior, predict a fire’s motion, and monitor the post-fire landscape like never before. Providing this information to firefighters, emergency managers, and state and county agencies helps NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service meet its mission of protecting the nation’s environment, security, economy and quality of life.

FSU researchers: Most fires in Florida go undetected

By: Zachary Boehm

A new study by Florida State University researchers indicates that common satellite imaging technologies have vastly underestimated the number of fires in Florida.

Holmes Nowell
Christopher Holmes, assistant professor in the department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, and Holly Nowell, postdoctoral researcher in EOAS.

Their report, published in collaboration with researchers from the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, challenges well-established beliefs about the nature and frequency of fire in the Sunshine State. While there were more fires than expected, researchers said, strategically prescribed burns throughout the state are proving an effective force against the ravages of wildfire.

The paper appears in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

For scientists studying fire, sophisticated satellites whizzing far above the Earth’s surface have long represented the best tool for monitoring wildfires and prescribed burns — carefully controlled and generally small fires intended to reduce the risk of unmanageable wildfires.

But FSU researchers suggest that fire experts themselves have been getting burned by faulty data, and that broadly accepted estimates of fire area and fire-based air pollutants might be flawed.

“There are well-known challenges in detecting fires from satellites,” said lead investigator Holly Nowell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science. “Here we show that only 25 percent of burned area in Florida is detected.”

Using comprehensive ground-based fire records from the Florida Forest Service — which regulates and authorizes every request for a prescribed burn in the state — researchers found dramatic discrepancies between fires detected by satellites and fires documented by state managers.

prescribed fire Florida
Austin Dixon of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy monitors a prescribed burn. Credit: Kevin Robertson

The majority of fires in Florida come in the form of prescribed burns, but because these fires are designed to be brief and contained, they often fall under the radar of satellites soaring overhead.

This is especially true in a state like Florida, where dense cloud cover is common and the warm, wet climate allows vegetation to regrow quickly after a blaze, disguising the scars that fires leave in their wake.

“Like a detective, satellites can catch a fire ‘in the act’ or from the ‘fingerprints’ they leave behind,” said study co-author Christopher Holmes, an assistant professor in EOAS. “In our area, catching an active fire in a thermal image can be hard because the prescribed fires are short, and we have frequent clouds that obscure the view from space.”

The state fire records also revealed a counterintuitive truth: Unlike in western states such as California, where dry conditions frequently produce massive increases in destructive and often uncontrollable fires, Florida actually experiences a decrease in land consumed by fire during drought.

When drought conditions emerge, researchers said, officials are less likely to authorize prescribed burns. And because prescribed burns account for the overwhelming majority of fires in the state, overall fire activity decreases.

This also suggests that prescribed burning programs — which aim to reduce the risk of wildfire in dry conditions — are having a materially positive effect.

“Although we still have occasional destructive wildfires, including the recent tragic Eastpoint fire, our results indicate that prescribed fire policy is helping to reduce wildfire risk,” Holmes said, referencing the June 2018 wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in Florida’s Big Bend region.

Tall Timbers specialist Tracy Hmielowski uses a drip torch to ignite vegetation as part of a prescribed burn. Credit: Kevin Robertson
While the team’s study reconfirms the utility of prescribed burning, it calls into question prevailing estimates for airborne pollution from fire. If, as the study suggests, only 25 percent of fires in Florida are detected by satellites, then there could be “a rather large bias and a significant potential underestimation of emissions,” Nowell said.

The study’s findings are specific to Florida, but researchers suspect that similar satellite limitations may be skewing fire detection — and, consequently, emission estimates — in neighboring regions and geographically analogous areas like the savannas of Africa or the agricultural belts of Europe and Asia.

“We believe this result easily extends to the rest of the Southeast United States — which burns more area than the rest of the United States combined in a typical year — and other similar regions throughout the world that use small prescribed burns as a land management technique,” Nowell said.

Kevin Robertson, Casey Teske and Kevin Hiers from Tall Timbers contributed to this study. The research was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

New South Wales fire mapping

Gold Mine Road Fire,
Gold Mine Road Fire, NSW RFS

The image above was distributed by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, showing a map of the Gold Mine Road Fire 17 km southwest of Towamba in the Yambulla State Forest. The map is part of the agency’s Common Operating Picture.

It was apparently obtained by infrared equipment that processed the data in a format we have not seen publicly in the United States. The black lines are most likely the path of the line scanner as the mirror rotated at thousands of RPM in a fixed wing aircraft. It’s interesting that the target discrimination marks (TDMs) only appear at the ends of each line, rather than at every heat source. The intensity of the heat is represented by a range of orange and yellow colors.

The U.S. Forest Service has been mapping fires with infrared equipment for at least four decades, but the folks down under also have very advanced IR systems.

Gold Mine Fire map NSWRFS
Map of the Gold Mine Fire as seen in the NSW RFS Common Operating Picture.


NASA to launch 200 satellites that will detect wildfires

CubeSat. NASA photo.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to launch a network of 200 small satellites that will detect wildfires within 15 minutes after a blaze grows to be at least 35 to 50 feet across. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a concept for a network of space-based sensors called FireSat in collaboration with Quadra Pi R2E. Within three minutes of detecting a fire from orbit, FireSat would notify emergency responders in the area of the fire.

Robert Staehle, lead designer of FireSat at JPL, and his team first presented the concept of FireSat in 2011 to the joint NASA/U.S. Forest Service Tactical Fire Remote Sensing Advisory Committee. They spent the subsequent years refining their understanding of fire monitoring needs and technological requirements.

“Such a system has only now become feasible at a reasonable cost, enabled by advances in commercial microelectronics that NASA, JPL and universities have tested in space via CubeSat experiments, and by software technology originally developed to give Mars rovers and Earth orbiters more autonomy in their science observations,” Staehle said.

This sounds like science fiction, but launches should begin in 2017 with a fully operational system of FireSat sensors in space by June of 2018.

CubeSats are 4 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches and weigh about 3 pounds. They are generally built from off the shelf components at a cost of thousands rather than millions of dollars. 

Firefighters making more progress on the Rocky Fire

(UPDATE at 7:21 a.m. PT, August 8, 2015)

The Rocky Fire east of Clearlake, California, was quiet again on Friday. The satellite did not detect any large heat sources on the blaze that CAL FIRE is calling 69,636 acres and 62 percent contained. Many areas have been repopulated but others are still under mandatory evacuation orders.

Almost 3,000 personnel are assigned to the fire, as well as 195 engines and 84 hand crews.


(UPDATE at 9:47 p.m. PT, August 5, 2015)

Firefighters on the Rocky Fire east of Clearlake, California had another successful day — for the second day in a row keeping the additional acres burned to less than 100. A mapping flight at 7 p.m. Wednesday determined that 37 acres were added, bringing the total to 68,924.

Today CAL FIRE updated the number of structures destroyed to 43 residences and 53 outbuildings.

Map Rocky Fire
Map of the Rocky Fire (in red) at 7 p.m. PT August 5, 2015. The green line was the perimeter the day before. (click to enlarge)

The mapping flight was earlier than usual, perhaps because one of the two USFS infrared (IR) line scanning aircraft is down for major planned maintenance, leaving a large workload for the single remaining IR ship operated by the US Forest Service. It’s an inopportune time for planned maintenance that sometimes must be done with a certain number of hours on the aircraft. But thankfully the ship carrying the load is a twin-engine jet-powered Cessna Citation that cruises at over 450 mph so it can visit many fires during its shift.

USFS IR aircraft, Cessna Citation Bravo
One of the U.S. Forest Service’s Infrared aircraft, a Cessna Citation Bravo, N144Z USFS photo.

The jet’s daily grand tour of wildfires is usually at night because there is more of a difference between the temperatures of the ground and the fire, making it easier for the fire to be detected. Just one quick pass is all that’s required of a fire that’s up to several thousand acres — more are needed for very large blazes such as the complexes of scores of scattered fires burning in northern California on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that are scanned as one large “box”, requiring six passes on a recent night.

But back to the Rocky Fire. The weather conditions on Wednesday were warmer and drier than the day before, but they were not extreme; lets call them moderate, at least for California. And about the same is in the forecast for Thursday. Firefighters deserve kudos for limiting the spread to much, much less that we were seeing several days ago.

On the map of the fire above, only a few changes in the perimeter can be picked out (if you click on the map to enlarge it). Two are on the north side where the fire jumped across Highway 20. The other is on the southeast side.

The resources assigned to the fire include 3,483 personnel, 323 engines, 87 hand crews, 17 helicopters, and 63 dozers.


(The article below was originally published at 10:24 a.m. PT, August 5, 2015)

Rocky Fire
A firing operation on the Rocky Fire August 3, 2015. Photo by Stuart Palley used with permission.

On Tuesday firefighters got a temporary break from extreme weather and fire behavior on the Rocky Fire east of Clearlake, California. A small amount of rain was reported in some areas of the fire, however the Knoxville Creek weather station on the southeast side did not record any precipitation.

The fire perimeter is still virtually the same as was shown on the map we posted August 4.

There was very little additional growth of the Rocky Fire Tuesday. A total of 76 acres were added, which occurred on the north side where it spotted across Highway 20, and on the southeast side west of Highway 16. A mapping flight at 10 p.m. Tuesday updated the size to 68,886 acres.

CAL FIRE updated the number of structures destroyed to 39 residences and 52 outbuildings. They caution that the numbers may increase as damage assessment teams are able to access the burned areas.

Mandatory evacuations are still in effect for many areas, affecting about 13,000 residents. Other areas are under evacuation advisories.

The high temperature of 75 degrees Tuesday occurred at 10 a.m. and it actually dropped to 69 at 3 p.m. thanks to clouds that moved in. The relative humidity increased to 58 percent at 3 p.m. and then decreased as the sky cleared somewhat.

Conditions will change on Wednesday as the forecast predicts 89 degrees, 24 percent relative humidity, clear skies, and winds out of the east at 3 to 6 mph.