PG&E launches satellite wildfire alert system

PG&E fire detection and alert system
PG&E fire detection and alert system. PG&E illustration.

The following information was released by the California-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company which describes a system they have developed to extract near real time fire detection data from satellites, such as the GOES 16 and the new GOES 17. Scott Strenfel, a Senior Meteorologist at PG&E, said   they are planning to make the data public within a month or two, which may be the first public tool available with GOES-R fire detections.

SAN FRANCISCO –– After several years of testing and development, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has deployed the PG&E Satellite Fire Detection and Alerting System.

The Satellite Fire Detection and Alerting System is a state-of-the-science program that incorporates data from the two new GOES satellites, as well as three polar orbiting satellites, to provide PG&E with advanced warning 24/7 of potential new fire incidents. The satellites are operated by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service division.

“This capability offers first-of-its-kind situational awareness by providing a live feed from the satellites to our Wildfire Safety Operations Center. Emerging technologies such as this are another way we are working to reduce wildfire risk and protect our customers and our communities,” said Sumeet Singh, Vice President of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program.

The PG&E Meteorology Team led development of the program in collaboration with experts in the satellite fire detection field from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC). The system became fully operational in late June.

PG&E fire detection and alert system
PG&E fire detection and alert system.

Working with the SSEC, PG&E developed a dedicated and proprietary data pipeline that provides fire detection data as fast as every minute. An internal web application allows staff at PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center to track fire progression as well as the intensity of fires in near real time. The system also generates new fire alerts via email and on an app. The system has already detected hundreds of fires since it began limited operation in February.

If a fire is detected from two or more satellites, such as GOES-16 and 17, then confidence is high of an actual fire in the area. In many cases this system is expected to provide an early, if not the first, indication of an incident.

Community Wildfire Safety Program

By the end of 2019, PG&E plans to have at least 600 weather stations and 100 high-definition cameras in high fire-threat areas. These new installations are one of the additional precautionary measures the company is implementing following the 2017 and 2018 wildfires to further reduce wildfire risks.

Researchers demonstrate that it is possible to accurately measure wildfire rate of spread from an orbiting aircraft

measure wildfire rate of spread from aircraft
Figure 3. Fire spread sequence for Detwiler Fire. Active fire fronts and fire spread vectors are portrayed for the seven-image sequence on 20 July 2017. The background image is a fusion of NAIP colour (depicting vegetation fuels and topography) with a colour density sliced version of the seventh FireMapper 2.0 image.

Now that federal land management agencies are being forced by an act of Congress to begin providing to fire managers the real time location of fires and firefighting resources, it opens a range of cascading benefits beyond just enhancing their safety and situational awareness.

Fire Behavior Analysts that could continuously observe the fire with infrared video from a manned or unmanned aircraft orbiting above the air tankers could make much more accurate, valuable, and timely Fire Behavior Forecasts. The fire spread computer models could be fine-tuned to be more accurate and their outputs could be displayed on the map along with the locations of firefighters who carry tracking devices, enabling the Operations Section Chief to make better-informed strategic and tactical decisions.

But until recently it was not known if georeferenced infrared imagery from an orbiting aircraft was accurate enough to be used for determining the rate of spread.

The short answer is, yes. A paper published last week indicates that the accuracy is sufficient. (FYI — the document is written for other scientists and not for practitioners.)

Now the question becomes, will the federal land management agencies actually implement the program to track the real-time location of fires and firefighters, or will they slow-walk it into oblivion like the Congressional orders to purchase a new air tanker, convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers, and the repeated requests from the GAO and Inspector General to provide data about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft?

measure wildfire rate of spread from aircraft
Figure 7. Wildfire spread during the Rey Fire on 21 August 2016. (a) Time 1 fire front. (b) Time 2 fire front (7 min later). (c) Fire spread vectors and ROS statistics. (d) 3-D perspective image depicting active fire front and spread vectors. (e) Histogram depicting frequency distribution of ROS estimates for all spread vectors in the two-pass imaging sequence.

Unfortunately even though United States taxpayers funded the research through the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation (grant number G00011220), only some of us will be able to read the fruits of the research since it is not an Open Access document. After it is viewed 50 times free access will be shut off.

Open Access logo
Open Access logo

It is published at Taylor and Francis Online, a private company based in the United Kingdom. So by the time you read this the company may be charging people to read the document. (UPDATE at 7:42 a.m. MST February 21, 2019: General access to the document has been shut off. The company is now charging $50 to view it for 24 hours.)

Not allowing taxpayers to read government funded research unless they pay for it again is reprehensible.

The document is at Taylor and Francis Online: Assessing uncertainty and demonstrating potential for estimating fire rate of spread at landscape scales based on time sequential airborne thermal infrared imaging. By: Douglas Stow, Philip Riggan, Gavin Schag, William Brewer, Robert Tissell, Janice Coen, and Emanuel Storey

Wildfire history of California, interactive

California fire history map
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. All fires in Southern California 1878-2018. Click to enlarge.

We often hear, “It’s not IF an area will burn, but WHEN”.

Capital Public Radio has developed an interactive map showing the footprints of wildfires that have occurred in California since 1878. You can see all of the fires at once, or individual years, and the map is zoomable. (The map may not display well in all browsers. It seems to work best using Firefox.)

I may or may not have spent too much time looking at these maps.

California fire history map San Diego County
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. San Diego County, 2003. The largest fire is the Cedar Fire. Click to enlarge.

Progression maps for 5 currently active fires

At least five very large fires are currently active in the United States:

  • Gap in northern California,
  • Pioneer in central Idaho,
  • Maple in Yellowstone National Park,
  • Soberanes on the central coast of California, and,
  • Beaver Creek in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.

Below we have progression maps of these fires (in that order).

We recently found out about a new website that has developed a very impressive mapping service for wildfires. It was the source of these maps. The site not only shows the locations, but in some cases for large fires it displays the perimeters — which can be animated to see the growth or progression of the fire over time. They have this information going back to 2003. It is on the EcoWest website and was created by a collaboration of the Sea to Snow company and the Bill Lance Center for the American West at Stanford University.

The perimeter data is dependent on what is made available by the agencies managing the fire, so there is not always a perimeter for every day.

You can minimize the Description box by clicking the down arrow at the top-right of the box.

(Update Sept. 22, 2020: the data from EcoWest previously posted below is no longer available.)

Tactical mapping and photography apps

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now using the United States National Grid (USNG) as its standard geographic reference system and is encouraging its use among their partners. The agency will use the USNG for deployment and tracking of resources, in their Incident Action Plans, and in NIMS-related programs, guidance, and training. FEMA will encourage all fire departments to use it and the system will be included in the curriculums at the National Fire Academy.

The USNG is a system for describing the location of a place on Earth. You can also use longitude and latitude, or Section, Township, and Range, or one of many other systems. The advantage of USNG is that it is very user friendly. If you know the general location already, for example on a particular wildfire, the location can be communicated with only six digits. It is far easier than using degrees, minutes and seconds, twice — for longitude and then again for latitude.

So with the thought that the wildland fire agencies will eventually begin using the USNG, I starting looking around for inexpensive, user friendly apps for smart phones.

First I looked for an app that could take a photo and automatically superimpose the location on the image in the USNG format. This can be very useful for firefighters to document conditions, conduct investigations, or to send near-real time intelligence to the Incident Command Post or dispatch offices. It could be especially handy for airborne firefighters.

I found that Solocator could meet the criteria, but the standard version, at $0.99, required an additional in-app purchase of $2.99 to enable the use of the USNG, raising the total cost to about $4. Not a huge sum, but $3 more than I expected to spend. If you don’t need the USNG, you can get by for $0.99.

It is a powerful app with many features and is user friendly except for the fact that to get to the settings, you have to swipe left or right from the page you see when you open the program. And there is no indication anywhere in the app, in the description in the app store, or on the developer’s web site that you have to swipe to see the settings.

As seen in the image below, you can place on a photo taken with the app the location (using one of many location systems), the direction the camera was facing, elevation, date, and time. The photo below has the location in USNG format, in this case beginning with 13T which is the zone that includes parts of SD, ND, CO, MT, WY, and NE. (National map with grid zones.) You can optionally include a watermark on each photo at the bottom-left, which could be the name of the fire or project, in your choice of three colors for the text. The app produces two images: one with the data and one with no visible data.


The photos you take can be emailed directly from the app.

If a hotshot crew needs air support quickly, they don’t want to fumble around with a cumbersome app — they just want the six digits as quickly as possible.

I looked for a mapping app with:

  1. GPS,
  2. maps that can be viewed without internet coverage,
  3. USNG,
  4. navigation, and
  5. the ability to determine the size of a polygon (or fire).

There are a crap ton of apps that are built around GPS, and browsing through them is overwhelming.

I looked at MilGPS which displays your location in HUGE characters. This would be excellent for just getting your coordinates so they can be passed on to someone else. But the app does not have off-line map capability, and I don’t believe it can determine acreage. It is also a little on the pricey side, at $10. I didn’t purchase it.

I downloaded Avenza PDF Maps, which is much cheaper: $0.00. It comes with no maps, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of maps that can be installed, with many of them being free, such as USGS topographical maps and U.S. Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Maps, all of which can be downloaded directly from the app. (UPDATE 12/24/2015: As Robert pointed out, PDF Maps is only free for personal use. Any commercial, governmental, academic or other non-personal use requires the purchase of a commercial license.)

PDF mapsI was hoping to find a mapping tool that could determine acreage by automatically recording your location as you walked around a fire, but I don’t believe PDF Maps can do this. It appears that as you walk you have to periodically push a button to find your location and then another button to record that point. The more points you record, the more accurate the result. You can also stand in one place and move the crosshairs over the map and record points to measure an area — a method that would be less accurate than walking the perimeter, but it’s a quick and dirty method of coming up with an acreage figure.

PDF Maps meets all five of the requirements listed above. I have a feeling that many wildland firefighters use this app, and hopefully they can correct me if I’m wrong and provide more details about their experiences.

There are probably many other apps that can perform these functions. There might even be one that can take photos like Solocator AND meet the five mapping requirements.

Let us know in a comment what apps you use for mapping and photo documentation — and what you like and don’t like about them.

UPDATE, December 23, 2015: At Al’s recommendation, we tried out another photography program, Theodolite. The data on the screen does not eat up as much real estate as Solocator, but we could not find a way to put a note or watermark on the photo, such as the name of a fire or project. At iTunes it is priced today at $5.99, which is 40 percent off the regular price. The app can display the location in numerous formats, including USNG with 10, 100, or 1,000 meter precision.

Photo taken with Theodolite, at the Fall River by Bill Gabbert.

Additional lessons that could be learned regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire

One of the presentations last week at the International Association of Wildland Fire conference, “Managing Fire, Understanding Ourselves”, concerned additional lessons that could be learned from the 19 fatalities on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. Specifically, use of the term “MAYDAY” and the National Grid mapping system.

Most of the following presentation was prepared by Al Studt, of Cape Canaveral Fire and Rescue. It was presented at the conference by wildland fire consultant Richard McCrea. It is used here with their permission.

To  view the slides, click the triangular play button and allow them to automatically advance every 10 seconds, or manually click the right arrow when you want to view the next slide.