What started as a small blaze in the backcountry of central California this summer became the 250,000-acre Yosemite Rim Fire that forced thousands of nearby residents out of their homes. The tab at the end of the fire fighting efforts tallied over $100 million, and that’s not including lost revenue, damaged structures or the tens of millions that some expect will be needed for restoration efforts.
As outlined this month in Remote Sensing journal, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley now hope that new satellite imaging technology could help with early detection of fires like the Rim, giving fire managers a leg up in planning response. Using state-of-the-art infrared sensors, cameras and processing software, the satellite would be able to identify fires before they reach even one acre in size, monitor the fire’s movement and detail where the fire is most active during firefighting efforts. One satellite would be able to monitor the entire western U.S., researchers on the project say. It’s not simply a fire suppression tool, the Berkeley team says, but a way to help managers plan and react before fires get out of hand.
If the satellite is built (a process researchers hope will start a year from now) it will be a major break-through for wildland firefighting. There have been some advances in fire monitoring during recent years, such as drones that can watch over a fire’s growth and movement, first used in 2007. But fire detection hasn’t changed much in the West since the Forest Service began employing lookouts in 1910 to sit in remote watchtowers and keep their eyes on the land. Technology in the watchtowers has advanced – they now have phones and internet – but those watchers, and any eye-witness reports, are still key to detecting wildfires.
Dr. Carl Pennypacker, an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley, who spent most of his career probing the edges of the universe, recently turned his gaze Earthward to develop the new satellite technology, FUEGO, or Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit. After the 1991 Oakland fire burned 3,000 structures, killed 25 people and created $1.5 billion in damage, Pennypacker began dreaming of a way to prevent future catastrophic blazes. Until recently, though, infrared and computational technology just hasn’t been up to snuff. Now, as computing costs have dropped and imaging sensors improve, his dream could become a reality.
The next step, says Pennypacker, is testing. Teaming up with researchers at the Hopland Field Station near Berkeley, who study ecology and conduct controlled burns, the FUEGO team plans to use their computer and imaging models from across the valley. While the FUEGO computers watch how the prescribed fire moves and map its hottest areas from afar, Hopland researchers will be collecting the same data in the field. By comparing the two groups' datasets later, researchers will be able to evaluate whether FUEGO software works. Pennypacker expects those tests to convince potential funding partners to support building the new satellite.
The FUEGO team hopes the satellite will be a natural fit for collaboration with federal agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He says it may also attract the attention of private insurance companies interested in reducing losses from wildfires, or even space aviation operations like Virgin Galactic, which has already sold 600 tickets for private space flight and has expressed interest in advancing satellite technology.
If all goes according to plan, the Berkeley team will see FUEGO built and launched after at year of testing. Pennypacker estimates a price tag of a few hundred million dollars, but says that compared to the $2 billion Forest Service fire budget in 2012, the satellite could easily pay for itself in a season.
Katie Mast is an Editorial Intern at High Country News. FUEGO Satellite conceptual rendering courtesy R.E. Lafever at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley. Image of 2003 California Fires courtesy NASA.