Fire Managers Use Satellites to Battle Western Blazes

BOISE, Idaho, July 22, 2003 (ENS) - More than 310 new fires were reported today, 12 of which spread to become large fires in California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. This year fire managers are receiving information from a suite of coordinated satellites flown by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that offer insight only possible from space.


The Kinishba fire on the Fort Apache reservation burned 24,000 acres and is 75 percent contained. (Photo courtesy BIA)
Of the 49 large fires currently burning in 13 western states, 18 of those are threatening structures or requiring firefighters to provide structure protection, fire officials said. Crews are working to control these fires under hot and dry conditions which are expected to persist throughout the West as many states report record heat.

The largest fire complex has blazed across 105,000 acres located 35 miles northwest of Jordan, Montana and is just 10 percent contained. Known as the Missouri Breaks Complex, these three fires have forced the evacuation of 50 people, and 50 residences are still threatened. Temperatures rising into the 90s and increasing winds today fanned the flames. The fires are burning south of the Missouri River on or adjacent to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

So far this year, Utah has experienced 15 large wildfires that have blackened more than 76,000 acres. Human activities are responsible for fires that consumed 69,600 of those acres, and burned several structures. Most of the human caused fires have been touched off by sparks from ATV’s, backhoes, welders, target shooting, and other sources, Utah fire officials say.

Any spark will start a fire that may burn thousands of acres, said Mike Dudley, chair of the Great Basin Coordination Committee. “In a typical year 95 percent of Utah fires are started by lightning, not people. This isn’t a typical year. We are in an explosive fire situation and need the public to pay more attention to simple fire prevention rules, especially those related to spark arresters,” he said.

The Bulldog fire in Utah is typical of human caused fires across the West. Sparks from an ATV ignited dry grass and the flames quickly spread across 31,738 acres of pinyon, juniper, mixed conifer, mountain mahogany, and oak 14 miles north of Ticaboo, Utah. Crews fought the fire through steep and rugged terrain although access has been difficult, and it is 70 percent contained.


Firefighter watches the Bulldog fire from his truck. (Photo courtesy Utah Fire Info)
The penalties for conviction of maliciously or negligently starting a fire can be up to five years of jail time, and liability both for the suppression and rehabilitation costs, Utah fire officials warn. Federal policy requires that all human caused fires be investigated to the fullest and mandates that cost recovery be pursued. The Department of Justice Affirmative Civil Enforcement’s Utah office leads the nation in collections of fire costs.

More than 800 firefighters battling a wildfire in Stanislaus County, California have to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes and rolling rocks as well as flames.

The fire started Sunday morning in Del Puerto Canyon, 15 miles north of Patterson near Interstate 5. So far, the fire is 55 percent contained, but it has already burned more than 5,700 acres. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

So far this year in California 3,914 fires have scorched 37,534 acres.

This year the nation's firefighters are getting some help from satellites in orbit high above the fires they are battling on the ground. In order to understand the complete mechanics of wildfires, several NASA satellites are flying in formation, one behind the other, separated by only a few minutes, during mid-morning hours, obtaining data for use by fire managers on the ground.

The U.S. Forest Service, via its Remote Sensing Applications Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, is obtaining data directly from NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites.

"We are interested in NASA assets being used for scientific research, but also for real world applications," said Vince Salomonson, a NASA senior scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"Fire is a global phenomenon, and using satellites, we have the ability to monitor fires and better understand the processes and changes in fire regimes associated with changes in climate and population," said Chris Justice, a professor of geography at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.

According to Justice, severe fires are occurring due to changing weather patterns, drought, changing land use and land management, and in some areas due to fuel accumulation resulting from suppression of fires. The expansion of housing into fire prone areas is also increasing risk, he said.


Staffers at the Remote Sensing Applications Center provide technical support to Forest Service field units utilizing geospatial technology. (Photo courtesy RSAC)
Remote sensing allows scientists to track fires, and their effects, such as the impact of gases and smoke on the composition and chemistry of the atmosphere.

Before a fire starts, satellite data can help identify areas at risk by providing information about vegetation densities and types, and whether conditions are dry enough to fuel fires.

During a fire, data from the latest overpass of NASA satellites are used to update active fire maps from models run four times a day, allowing fire agencies to prioritize aircraft flights for more detailed information about a site.

Instruments, such as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on the Terra spacecraft, provide daily, almost global observations of the extent and relative intensity of fires and altitude estimates of smoke plumes.

Another instrument keeps daily track of the carbon monoxide plumes from fires and the scope of pollution produced regionally and globally.

After a fire is contained, imagery from space can help classify the burn area into levels of severity and prioritize rehabilitation work. The imagery can also be used over the longer term to keep tabs on the greening of previously burned areas and to monitor the effectiveness of various treatments.

NASA is testing a semi-autonomous system, known as the "sensor web." Various satellites will have the ability to communicate with each other, and provide interactive layers of images. One satellite might detect a fire starting and then signal another satellite to take detailed or specialized images for better monitoring.

NASA helped develop unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology and sensors for detailed fire observation. Collaborating with NASA, the U.S. Forest Service is working to develop techniques for UAVs to assist with fire response and mapping.