NASA satellites track fires

NASA

As fire season rages in the western United States, the fire fighters are getting some help from outer space.

NASA's Earth Observing System consists of satellites that relay near-real-time information to U.S. Forest Service fire managers, who currently face wildfires in at least 11 states. The satellites can transmit the location, area and extent of each fire. The system can also track the direction of fires, size of smoke plumes and projected pollution effects.

The Agriculture Department's Forest Service receives the information directly from the satellites via its Remote Sensing Applications Center in Salt Lake City. Fire managers use the data to help them decide where to deploy resources.

"What's important is that the information is accurate and timely," said Tom Bobbe, the center's manager.

The satellite data also helps scientists understand how fires behave. "Using satellites, we have the ability to monitor fires and better understand the processes and changes in fire regimes associated with changes in climate and population," said Chris Justice, a professor of geography at the University of Maryland.

NASA has global ambitions for the system. The agency can create a global map of fires and is trying to get other countries involved in an integrated effort.

"The idea is to get scientists with expertise around the world involved in working as a community to get a better management of the planet as a whole," Justice said.

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