AT 10 AM on Friday, May 15, wildland fire season kicked off in California. Officials from the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, and a few other agencies gathered at the Kern County Fire Department Headquarters in Bakersfield to, if not celebrate, at least observe the moment. Everyone knew they were looking at a rough year. The ongoing western drought will make sure of that.
Now, a team of researchers believes they may be able to help. The idea is to enable early location and identification of fires using drones, planes, and satellites mounted with special infrared cameras. They’re calling it the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit–or Fuego–and once fully operational the system could spot new wildfires anywhere in the Western US barely three minutes after they start. “All year round is going to be fire season now,” says Carlton Pennypacker, an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley and lead researcher on Fuego. “That makes this more urgent.”
When it’s done, Fuego would consist of infrared cameras mounted on drones and piloted aircraft soaring across fire-prone areas of the country, plus another camera on a satellite. The cameras would snap photos in a 3.9-micron band, a wavelength of light that fires emit but which is invisible to the human eye. A computer would then subtract recent photos from new ones of the same area, and by looking at the difference be able to tell when a new fire has erupted.
“This is something we’ve used for years in the astrophysics community,” Pennypacker says. “You subtract one image of a galaxy from another. That’s how you find supernovas.” He got the idea during the 1991 Oakland fires, but at the time, infrared imagers were too expensive and clunky for anything like this to work. Now that lighter and more affordable infrared cameras are available, Pennypacker has been able to apply his expertise at finding distant supernovas to tracking wildfires back on Earth.
Wildfire watchers already rely on some space imaging, but in a fully built version of the system, drones and crewed planes would fly over fire-prone regions (like Southern California during Santa Ana wind cycles), and a Fuego-specific satellite would scan the entire Western US using a small telescope paired with an infrared imager. All those surveillance systems would scan the entire region every three minutes looking for new blazes as small as a quarter of an acre, relaying flare-up data to a wildfire analysis system at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. That network connects the info to fire management agencies so they can get to the scene and quell the blaze. Basically it would be like having fire alarms hovering on station over the Western states.
If it worked, it’d be a real improvement over today’s fire detection system. It’s a bit of a patchwork. Some fires are reported by eyewitnesses, who often give imprecise locations. Others are reported by spotters in fire towers or by aircraft that fly overhead and call it in. And occasionally, a fire is detected by the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, a meteorological satellite that is effective at tracking weather but doesn’t have the right spatial bands or resolution to identify wildfires. In remote areas, some fires can burn for days before they are identified and spread faster than a person can run. The sooner fire fighters get to a site, the smaller the fire they face. “Would more precise pinpointing help? Yes, absolutely,” says Janet Upton, Deputy Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, more colloquially known as Cal Fire.
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