Satellite helping to fight fires
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Aug 22, 2001
NASA's MODIS site
The Forest Service is using images from NASA's Terra satellite to help combat
the wildfires raging across a number of western states.
In a collaborative effort among NASA, the University of Maryland and
the Forest Service, the Terra satellite beams images of the western wildfires
to the space agency within a few hours of the time that it passes over the
region. The daily images provide information that helps the nearly 29,000
firefighters and support personnel battle the blazes as they occur and control
the damage afterwards.
The three institutions are integrated under the Rapid Response Project,
a program that includes a complex communications network and was created
in response to the fires of 2000 that ravaged parts of Idaho and Montana.
Data for tracking fires comes from Terra's Moderate-resolution Imaging
Spectroradiometer (MODIS). The Terra images and active fire detections are
transmitted to the Forest Service, and the data becomes part of agency's
fire-monitoring toolkit, said Jacques Descloitres, manager of the Rapid
Response system at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Maps derived from the data show active fires each day and areas that
were burned during previous days, said Keith Lannom, operations program
leader at the Forest Service. "MODIS gives us a [comprehensive] view of
where the fires are located and their relation to urban areas and rural
In the past, that information was scattered and came from "individual
fires in different formats and went to different people," Lannom said. "This
is the first time we can map fires looking at a larger area."
These maps are available via the Internet to regional and national fire
management teams by 6 a.m. Mountain time. And because the maps cover large
areas, they are used for strategic planning rather than tactical decisions,
Lannom said. The maps are also available to the public at www.nifc.gov/firemaps.html.
By October, the Forest Service will be able to produce its own fire
images within a few hours of a Terra overpass, which happens twice daily.
The Forest Service is building the Remote Sensing Application Center (RSAC)
in Salt Lake City to generate real-time images of western wildfires. The
Forest Service will still receive imagery of the eastern United States from
the University of Maryland and NASA, Descloitres said.
The university and NASA have developed all the software for the RSAC
direct broadcast station. The Forest Service has developed the corresponding
software that creates the maps from the Terra data using standard Forest
Service mapping techniques.
"They will be able to generate the same product as NASA within a few
minutes of satellite overpass, significantly reducing data turnaround to
a bare minimum so they can use it for science applications right away and
real-time data processing," Descloitres said.
In addition, University of Maryland researchers are developing advanced
algorithms for detection of active fire locations and assessment of post-fire
conditions, said Rob Sohlberg, principal investigator for the project at
"We want to provide useful management information [daily] rather than
just data," Sohlberg said, adding that the Terra work began in February
and has been operational since June.