NASA systems fight Western blazes

As forest fires ravaged Western states last month NASA tested two information technology systems that could improve firefighting strategies by providing real-time data on the location and movement of wildfires.

Last month NASA launched the $6 million Satellite Telemetry and Return Link (StarLink) system which allows an ER-2 aircraft equipped with sensors and flying 60 000 feet above the ground to continuously transmit information on those fires via the Internet to personnel charged with battling the blaze on the ground.

The plane transmitted images of fires burning in the Fork region near Clear Lake Calif. to California Department of Forestry personnel in a remote command center on the fringes of the fire and at intelligence facilities across the state. The images and data were then sent via satellite to NASA's White Sands Test Facility Las Cruces N.M. which then sent the images via satellite to Ames Research Center Mountain View Calif. The information was then downloaded to NASA's Internet site at

StarLink allows firefighters on the ground to connect electronically via modems the Internet or local-area networks with airborne instruments to fine-tune data acquisition.

The experimental system which NASA's Office of Communications purchased from Loral Corp. uses off-the-shelf hardware to provide images in natural color and infrared and to show thermal composites of a region. These images allow firefighters to view active fires in real time areas damaged by previous fires so-called "hot spots" and natural boundaries.

John Arvesen chief of the high-altitude missions branch at Ames said the system was more successful than NASA officials had hoped because it gave firefighters a rare view of the blaze.

"It eliminates smoke " Arvesen said. "This gives them a strategic view of the fire's perimeters with the smoke stripped away."

StarLink also provides that information quickly. Previously disaster-control agencies had to wait several hours after an airplane landed before the data it had gathered was ready to be analyzed.

Before StarLink firefighters could only observe from helicopters or on the ground small portions of forest fires which can encompass hundreds of acres of land according to Jeff Myers manager of the aircraft data facility at Ames.

With StarLink firefighters "can get a very large overview of the entire area " Myers said. "If you were looking through a visible spectrum you could not see the ground [because of the smoke. StarLink] takes a lot of the guesswork out of firefighting."

NASA also will use StarLink for monitoring other types of disasters such as floods earthquakes and hurricanes. The real-time data transfer will also support telescience missions to gather stratospheric tropospheric and earth resource information.

Providing more real-time information on forest fires is the goal of another proj-ect Ames is working on with the Bureau of Land Management the Forest Service and the Nevada Division of Forestry. The agencies are evaluating the Advanced Navigation Display System (ANDS) a mapping and communications system that will be installed in five Forest Service and industry firefighting aircraft by the end of this fire season.

ANDS uses Pentium computers CD-ROM maps radio modems and the Global Positioning System to display the position of aircraft fighting forest fires and to provide two-way data communications between aircraft.

Aerial firefighters currently rely on radio communications and instincts rather than technology said Vernol Battiste a research psychologist at Ames' Flight Management and Human Factors Division. ANDS will provide data on who is in the airspace over a fire what the terrain looks like where the outline of the fire is and how much water or fire retardant is left in each aircraft. "A lot of what is going on and unfolding can be delivered on a real-time basis " he said.

- Colleen O'HARA contributed to this report.


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