Satellite helping to fight fires


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 towns."

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

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 the university.

"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.


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