US firefighters and land managers use NASA-satellite data to combat wildfires

NASA’s Terra satellite, providing a view of fires across the entire United States, are helping experts to manage more effectively fires burning across 11 states, both during and after wildfire events.

The Terra satellite beams daily images of western US wildfires to NASA within a few hours of the time that it passes over the region. These images, showing the locations of active fires, are then transmitted to the Forest Service, and will only take a matter of minutes to reach their destination after the Service’s own direct broadcast receiving stations are completed in Salt Lake City in October. Images from Terra’s Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument will then become a regular part of the Forest Service’s fire monitoring toolkit.

The images show daily active fires, and areas that were burned during previous days and will also be used for strategic asset allocation when fighting wildfires. Advanced products to assist the Burned-Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) teams are also being developed from Terra data. The BAER team consists of soil scientists, hydrologists, wildlife specialists and other scientists. They use burn-severity maps, derived from satellite and ground measurements, to help them take measures that will prevent further erosion, soil loss and adverse impacts to water quality. It is anticipated that Terra data will provide a quick overview, which can then be refined on the ground. The maps will also help scientists identify critical wildlife habitat affected by the fire and facilitate reforesting an area.

The MODIS instrument also has another practical use in wildfire situations. Wei Min Hao, the Project Leader of the Fire Chemistry Project at the US Forest Service’s Fire Science Laboratory in Montana, is developing a MODIS aerosol product to track smoke dispersed by wildfires, and to determine the impact that it has on regional air quality. “During fires where there are large amounts of smoke, reconnaissance planes that normally map fires can’t fly into an area, but MODIS can provide those pictures from space,” he said.

“Through a collaborative effort, we can now use images beamed back to earth from a NASA satellite to make strategic decisions as we combat wildfires across the nation,” commented Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. “This is especially critical when firefighting resources are stretched to the limit as they are this fire season.”

When edie was published, more than 29,000 firefighters were attempting to control a total of 32 infernos raging in nine states: California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington, resulting in the loss of some 330,000 acres. The worst single fire is in the Virginia Lake area in Washington State that has consumed more than 73,000 acres and was only 30% contained. To date this year, 56,469 fires have burnt some 28 million acres, already one million more than the usual total for the entire year.

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