The wildfires in Southeast British Columbia, Northern Washington, Northern Idaho, and Northwest Montana were putting up a lot of smoke Thursday at 7:10 p.m. PDT. NASA GOES 17.
Fire weather is heating up across the western United States, exacerbated by an intense heatwave and ongoing severe drought. NOAA satellites are monitoring numerous wildfires and keeping watch on areas primed for ignition. As of June 17, 2021, 33 large fires are currently active, burning more than 400,000 acres in 10 states. More than one million acres have burned across the country so far in 2021.
NOAA satellites zoomed in on several of the major fires burning in the western U.S, including the Telegraph and Mescal Fires in southeastern Arizona, Pack Creek and Bear Fires in Utah, and the Robertson Draw Fire in Montana.
GOES-16 (GOES East) and GOES-17 (GOES West) are monitoring these fires in near-real time. Flying in geostationary orbit, they keep constant watch over the same area, and help to locate fires, detect changes in fire behavior, and predict their motion. They also provide important information about the size, temperature, and intensity of fires that would otherwise be unavailable.
Fire temperature imagery from geostationary satellites is particularly useful to identify new hot spots and the direction those hot spots are moving, especially for fast-growing or newly-formed fires. Specialized imagery that combines data from multiple channels on the satellites’ Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument, allows both a fire’s hot spot and associated smoke plume to be visualized.
Satellite imagery of several of the fires, including the Pack Creek and Bear Fires in Utah and the Telegraph Fire in Arizona, reveal impressive plumes with thick pyrocumulus clouds, which form when there is enough moisture and atmospheric instability over an intense heat source and smoke.
JPSS satellites feed the HRRR-smoke model, the first weather forecast model in the U.S. to monitor wildfire smoke. The model relies on multiple satellite measurements, such as heat energy, wind speed, rainfall and atmospheric temperature, and combines these data with vegetation maps. The combined data is mapped to a three-dimensional grid that provides information on surface level smoke, and smoke high in the atmosphere. The model also produces a forecast with detailed updates on the height of the smoke plume, the amount of smoke produced and the direction it’s expected to move.
The HRRR-smoke model from June 15, for example, shows smoke from the fires in Arizona and Utah moving north and east across the country.
The benefits provided by the latest generation of NOAA satellites aren’t just seen during a fire but are important in monitoring the entire life cycle of a fire disaster. Data from the satellites are helping forecasters monitor drought conditions, locate hot spots, detect changes in a fire’s behavior, predict a fire’s motion, monitor smoke and air quality, and monitor the post-fire landscape like never before.
Timely satellite imagery is critical, potentially life-saving information in a dynamic fire environment. In the past, incident meteorologists had a single low-resolution image that updated every 15 minutes — typically the image was already 20 minutes old when it arrived at the forecaster. Now, GOES-16 and GOES-17 frequently detect fires before they are spotted on the ground – as early as 10 to 15 minutes before emergency notifications to 911.
Fire risk, detection, and analysis
Brock Blevins, the Training Coordinator for the NASA Applied Remote Sensing Training Program (ARSET) asked that we pass along an online training opportunity.
NASA’s ARSET will be offering a new online webinar series: Satellite Observations and Tools for Fire Risk, Detection, and Analysis.
The six-part training in English and Spanish will cover how remote sensing and Earth observations can be used to monitor conditions before, during and after fires. Topics covered will include weather and climate conditions, fuel characterization, fire risk, smoke detection, monitoring, forecasting, fire behavior, and post-fire landscapes. This intermediate-level training will provide lectures and case studies focused on the use of Earth observations for operational fire monitoring.
Course Dates in 2021: May 11, 13, 18, 20, 25, 27.
Times and Registration Information:
Learning Objectives: By the end of this training attendees will understand:
- Terminology regarding type and components of fire (pre, during, post)
- Climatic and biophysical conditions pre-, during-, and post-fire
- The satellites and instruments used in conducting fire science
- The applications of passive and active remote sensing for fires
- How to visualize fire emissions and particulate matter
- The use of tools for active fires, emissions, and burned areas
- How to acquire data for conducting analysis in a given study area
Audience: This training is primarily intended for local, regional, state, federal, and international organizations involved in resource and ecosystem management, health and air quality, disaster risk management, disaster response, and those with an interest in applying remote sensing to fire science.
Course Format: Six, 2-hour Parts
The Canadian Space Agency is considering launching a satellite that would monitor wildfires. The “WildFireSat” (WFS) would not detect them, but would monitor fire characteristics and emissions in support of international requirements for carbon reporting. The satellite would help to determine which sensors and frequency bands are most useful. Eventually this could develop into a constellation of satellites providing real-time coverage of wildfires not only in Canada but across the planet.
Below is an excerpt from the Notice of Proposed Procurement:
…It should be emphasized that WFS represents a wildfire monitoring capability and not a wildfire detection capability. A key mission objective of WFS is to monitor accurately the radiated power from wildfires to infer their characteristics and be able to improve fire management practices and report on carbon emission. The mission would confirm that the current selection of frequency bands and algorithms is adequate to retrieve fire characteristics with the desired accuracy.
As such, the WFS mission will serve as a stepping stone to accomplish the long-term objective of establishing a new, potentially commercial, fully operational 24/7 service in the future. WFS could help prepare the user community in Canada and possibly abroad, and thus create the customer-base that would be needed for a future global operational data service to be commercially viable.
The NWS may one day issue watches and warnings based on the predicted spread of a dangerous wildfire.
The higher resolution and shorter time intervals between images on the more recently launched weather satellites has made it a reality for wildfires to be detected and local land managers notified within minutes.
The new GOES 16 and GOES 17 satellites can identify new wildfire ignitions more accurately than their predecessors. The higher resolution means the location can sometimes be pinned down to within less than a miles as long as the temperature reaches the threshold that triggers the software to paint it in the image.
For a while the National Weather Service had occasionally notified land managers when they detected a wildfire but in 2016 as numerous blazes erupted in Oklahoma and Kansas the Oklahoma Forestry Services Fire Management Chief specifically asked for help to identify new fire starts. In an April 30, 2019 presentation transmitted remotely to the International Association of Wildland Fire’s Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference in Albuquerque, T. Todd Lindley, Science and Operations Officer with the NWS, said that considering the fire storms brewing in the area on that day in 2016 that someone on their staff determined that, “We need to innovate today”.
Within about four hours, Mr. Lindley said, they had developed a computer program that could enable a forecaster to send a notification to a land manager about a new fire very quickly, with just a few mouse clicks.
They have had success with the system, with 83 percent of notifications being received prior to local 911 calls.
And branching off of their ability to predict the tracks of thunderstorms and tornados and issuing watches and warnings, the NWS is experimenting with identifying the projected spread of a fire which could possibly lead to issuing watch and warning areas for wildfires.
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.
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.
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.
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