New satellite technology to detect wildfires an acre in size

 

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.

A rendering of the FUEGO satellite, which would snap digital photographs of the Western U.S. every few seconds in search of higher temperatures that could be newly ignited fires.

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.

California.A2003299.1840.jpeg
Wildfires in California in 2013. These images were captured by a NASA satellite that has orbited Earth since 1999. The new FUEGO technology would remain focused on one area of the planet, rather than continuously orbit.

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...