Tracking Fires From Space
August 10, 2013

Satellites Keep On Eye On Wildfire Threat

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

As wildfires rage across California, NASA scientists are using satellite imagery to both monitor the current blaze and create models designed to predict where future fires might occur.

"Over the last 30 years we have seen an increase in hot and dry conditions that promote fire activity," said Doug Morton, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "And across the western US and Alaska, satellites show an increase in the area that burns each year over that same time period."

Two NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, have been the main observers of these fires and their aftermath for the past ten years. Both satellites use a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to track fire’s role in land cover change, ecosystem processes and the carbon cycle on a global scale. The instruments provide four daily updates on active fires that are sent to the necessary decision makers.

[ Watch the Video: Fire Intensities Mapped By NASA’s MODIS ]

The Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) in Salt Lake City receives and processes MODIS data so it can send out fire detection information to users in the United States.

"We provide this information to national and regional managers so that they have a current picture of ongoing fire activity and its effects (observed fire intensity, burned area and smoke extent) which assists in making strategic fire planning and response decisions," said Brad Quayle, a remote sensing specialist with RSCA.

Another major weapon in the battle against forest fires is the Landscape Fire and Resources Management Planning Tools project, referred to as Landfire. Landfire uses data from NASA’s Landsat satellites to provide maps of the nation's vegetation cover including vegetation type, tree canopy cover and height. Experts combine this data with weather information to make crucial fire behavior predictions and decisions on how to deploy firefighting resources and recovery efforts.

[ Watch the Video: US Great Plains To Experience Greater Risk of Fire ]

The free Landsat and MODIS data is also used to analyze previous wildfires. US government analysts are currently mapping the regularity, scope and severity of all large fires from 1984 to today. Quayle said the project will provide new details on forest fires with respect to climate change.

Morton said current models predict conditions will probably result in more fires across the United States in coming decades. These changes will bring longer fire seasons, expose larger areas to risk and increase the frequency of extreme fires. NASA scientists noted areas like the Midwest, which rarely see any fires right now, could become hotbeds of fire activity in the future.

Increased fire activity is expected to cost the nation more money to rebuild and could threaten food production areas.

"Fighting fires is a very expensive proposition," said Jim Vogelmann, research ecologist from USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center in Sioux Falls, SD.

In June, the Black Forest wildfire in Colorado was highly destructive to both property and life. However, the 14,000-acre fire pales in comparison to this years’ Moore Creek Fire in Alaska than claimed over 150,000 acres.

"A 100,000-acre wildfire used to be unusual, you would see one every few years," said Carl Albury, a contractor with the Forest Service-Remote Sensing and Applications Center in Salt Lake City. "Those type of fires are becoming a yearly occurrence."

[ Watch the Video: NASA Charts Possible Evaporation For North America ]