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
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • 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
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 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...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....