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Battling Wildfires from Space: UMD & NASA Add to Firefighters' Toolkit

July 17, 2015

Laura Ours 301-405-5722

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – U.S. firefighters battling wildfires this year will get a clearer view of these threats with new UMD-led, NASA-funded satellite-based tools to better detect fires and predict their behavior. 

Each year, wildfires in the United States burn an average of 7 million acres of land, and for the last 10 years, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior have spent a combined $1.5 billion annually on wildfire suppression. The demand for timely, high-quality fire information has increased in recent years, as large catastrophic wildfires have because commonplace.  

Research Associate Professor Wilfrid Schroeder of UMD’s Department of Geographical SciencesNow, a new fire detection tool, developed by Research Associate Professor Wilfrid Schroeder of UMD’s Department of Geographical Sciences, uses data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite to detect fires in more detail than previous space-based products. The high-resolution data is used with a cutting-edge computer model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to predict how a fire will change direction based on weather and land conditions.

Data from Suomi NPP’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) increases the resolution of fire observations to just 1,230 feet (375 meters). Previous NASA satellite data products available since the early 2000’s observed fires at a 3,280 foot (1 kilometer) resolution. The jump in detail is helping transform how satellite remote sensing data is used in support of wildfire management.

The enhanced VIIRS fire product enables detection every 12 hours or less of much smaller fires and provides more detail and consistent tracking of fire lines during long duration wildfires – capabilities critical for early warning systems and support of routine mapping of fire progression. Active fire locations are available to users within minutes from the satellite overpass through data processing facilities at the USFS Remote Sensing Applications Center, which uses technologies developed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Direct Readout Laboratory in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

NCAR’s weather-fire model has demonstrated potential to enhance firefighter and public safety by increasing awareness of rapidly changing fire behavior. The model uses data on weather conditions and the land surrounding an active fire to predict 12-18 hours in advance whether a blaze will shift direction. The VIIRS fire detection product has been applied to these models, successfully verifying the wildfire simulations. 

“We hope that by infusing these higher resolution detection data and fire behavior modeling outputs into tactical fire situations, we can lessen the pressure on those working in fire management,” said Schroeder. 

In addition to the UMD and NCAR, the VIIRS 375m fire detection project team included NASA’s Earth Science Applied Sciences Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System Proving Ground Program, and the U.S. Forest Service. The technology is now in operation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service (USFS), and the state of Colorado recently decided to incorporate the weather-fire model in its firefighting efforts beginning with the 2016 fire season.

Active fire maps of the United States are available online at: http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us.