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How drones, satellites and LIDAR tech help in fighting wildfires

The year 2016 may go down in the history books for a number of events, and in Canada, the Fort McMurray wildfire that burned from May 1, 2016, and was not contained until June 18, will end up being not only the largest but also the costliest wildfire in Canadian history.

The Fort McMurray wildfire has destroyed one of the oilsands camps north of the city and is roaring ...

The Fort McMurray wildfire has destroyed one of the oilsands camps north of the city and is roaring eastward toward others in its path. This image from the Suomi NPP satellite taken on May 17, 2016 shows the fires heading in that direction.
NASA/MODIS


In California and several other Southwestern states, wildfires have already strained the resources of the U.S. Forestry Service, scorching hundreds of square miles of land, and it is still very early in the fire season. The San Gabrial Complex fire in the Angeles Forest near Los Angeles is just one of a number of fires burning in California.

These monster wildfires are just a couple of examples of how modern technology has aided firefighters in the containment of the fires and allowed us to get a better understanding of how and why they burn. Of course, we can’t forget that when dealing with large wildfires, the temperature, humidity and whether or not it will rain plays a role in containment.

The San Gabrial Complex Fire is located just north of Los Angeles in the San Gabrial Mountains. This...

The San Gabrial Complex Fire is located just north of Los Angeles in the San Gabrial Mountains. This image was taken on June 20, 2016.
NASA/MODIS


Real-time fire data using MODIS
One of the biggest advances in firefighting came about in the 2000-2001 fire season. Through an unique collaboration between NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Department of Geography at the University of Maryland (UMD), and the USFS Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC), a new project called MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) Land Rapid Response was put into use.

The MODIS sensor is on NASA’s AQUA and TERRA satellites that view the entire Earth’s surface every one to two days. The sensors on MODIS show heat sources, and this has proved to be very important. As a matter of fact, the very first wildfire seen by MODIS was the Noatak, Alaska wildfire in the early 2000s, says Sean Triplett, the group leader for geo-spatial and information management at the U.S. Forest Service.

“Alaska is huge,” Triplett says, according to the Daily Beast in 2014. “It’s a long flight from one side of the state to the other. MODIS was really able to allow us to cover the whole state really quickly since it sees a larger area.”

After a fire has been contained or is finally put out, forestry officials can then make use of the U.S. Geological Survey’s LANDSAT satellite to determine the severity and extent of the burn by comparing pre- and post-fire images. Scientists compare the differences in the brightness of the photos to determine the normalized burn ratio, as well as changes in the ground.

LANDSAT imagery show the comparison of idle fields in California from 2011 to 2015.

LANDSAT imagery show the comparison of idle fields in California from 2011 to 2015.
LANDSAT/NASA


Triplett says that in Colorado in 2013, “they had a large area of spruce mortality from beetles, so the fire got up and made large runs, burning out all the dead spruce. When you overlaid the satellite imagery, we saw that when the fire got out of the areas of spruce mortality and running into live fuels, the fire laid down. So from a planning perspective, we can use natural resistance to help slow or stop fires.”

Management of fuel in a wildfire using LIDAR
While satellites have proven to be a very useful tool in fire management, a major part is the management of fuel. No, not the amount of fuel used in bulldozers or fire trucks, but the composition of the stuff that burns, whether its dead trees and brush or prairie grass.

Roger Ottman, a research forester at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences laboratory in Seattle, Washington, says the composition of the fuel for a wildfire is critical. Dried out grasses burn faster than brush, dead limbs, and tree trunks, although large pieces of fuel will smolder longer. He adds that in more complex systems, such as meadows next to a stand of trees, modeling the different burn rates is important in how first-responders fight the fire.

Visualization of section of Sierra Nevada  forest structure developed by the SNAMP  Spatial Team usi...

Visualization of section of Sierra Nevada forest structure developed by the SNAMP Spatial Team using Lidar data.
University of California Cooperative Extension Forestry


This is where LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) comes into play. LIDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. Along with other data collected by the airborne system, it generates precise, three-dimensional information about the composition of the fuel bed.

“In a wildfire situation, if the smoke is downwind, scientists want to improve our ability to predict what impact there might be for visibility and human health,” Ottman says. “Those models have gotten more sophisticated, so they need more data in order to characterize the fuels that can be consumed.”

The addition of drones to airborne detection systems
While airplanes are still used for aerial observation, forestry officials have turned to using drones, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). This policy was first implemented in late August 2015, when an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was utilized on the Paradise fire in Olympic National Park, according to the National Park Service.

The UAS proved itself during that wildfire, especially during periods of reduced visibility because of smoke that hampered the use of airplane observations. The drone was also able to send back infra-red information, pinpointing the fire’s perimeter and identifying areas of intense heat. Without the infra-red capabilities of the drone’s camera, firefighters would not have been able to see below the thick canopy formed by large trees.

The ScanEagle was the UAS used on the Paradise fire in Olympic National Park.

The ScanEagle was the UAS used on the Paradise fire in Olympic National Park.
National Park Service


The primary goal in using UAS technology on wildland fires is to supply incident management teams (IMT) with real-time data products regarding fire size and growth, fire behavior, fuels, and areas of heat concentration. All these issues have to be taken into consideration in fighting wildfires today, so having the latest technology is important.

“The most important thing is getting data out of the system,” Triplett says, according to the Daily Beast. “Manned, unmanned, a balloon, a kite—you still have to get the information into the hands of the firefighters.”

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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