It’s time to give firefighters a 21st century tool: A fire-spotting satellite.

By GIS Resources

Scientists from UC Berkeley Develop Framework For Fire-spotting Satellite

UC Berkeley researchers have developed an initial framework for a satellite that could one day help locate emerging fires and monitor “hot spots” in some of the most fire-prone areas of the western United States.

Such a satellite could view the Western states almost continuously, snapping pictures of the ground every few seconds in search of hot spots that could be newly ignited wildfires. Firefighting resources could then be directed to these spots in hopes of preventing the fires from growing out of control and threatening lives and property.

The satellite, dubbed the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, or FUEGO, will use multispectral sensing, false-alarm-rejection algorithms and other new technologies to assess the intensity and rate of growth of all fires in its view. It relies on remote sensing technology, in which aerial sensors are launched into Earth’s orbit to produce images of the planet’s surface.

Stephens, physicist Carl Pennypacker, remote sensing expert Maggi Kelly and their colleagues describe the satellite in an article published online Oct. 17 by the journal Remote Sensing

“With a satellite like this, we will have a good chance of seeing something from orbit before it becomes an Oakland fire,” said Pennypacker, a research associate at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory and scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, referring to the devastating 1991 fire that destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Berkeley and Oakland. “It could pay for itself in one firefighting season.”

The idea of a fire detection satellite has been floated before, but until recently, detectors have been prohibitively expensive, and the difficulty of discriminating a small burning area from other bright hotspots, such as sunlight glinting off a mirror or windshield, made the likelihood of false alarms high. Today, computers are faster, detectors cheaper and more sensitive, and analysis software far more advanced, making false alarms much less likely, according to researchers.

Infrared images of the area around Yosemite National Park on Aug. 17, 2013, before and 10 minutes after ignition of the Rim Fire. The images, taken by the GOES weather satellite, show that fire hotspots can be detected from space. GOES is a powerful, all-purpose satellite, and was not exclusively designed for fire detections , unlike the proposed FUEGO geosynchronous satellite, which could scan areas every few minutes. Images by Chris Schmidt, Univ. of Wisconsin.

An artist’s concept of the FUEGO satellite, which would snap digital photos of the Western U.S. every few seconds in search of hot spots that could be newly ignited fires. Image by R. E. Lafever, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

How it works

“In concept, this is a simple system: a telephoto camera, an infrared filter and a recording device. We are just looking for something bright compared to the surroundings or changing over time,” Kelly said. “Then, we do these rapid calculations to determine if one image is different from the next.” A small telescope with modern detectors and significant computing capacity in geosynchronous orbit can detect small (12 m2) fires on the surface of the earth.

Pennypacker and graduate student Marek K. Jakubowski developed a computer analysis technique, or algorithm, to detect these differences in space and time and to distinguish them from bright lights that might look like fires.

“The point is, satellites like Landsat and GOES provide great information after a fire starts; they can focus and monitor a fire by looking at smoke plumes, fire spread, hot spots at the edges, etc.,” Kelly said. “FUEGO is designed for early detection of smaller fires. Right now, we lose a lot of time because fires are already big by the time we see them.”

Images taken in two different infrared wavelengths reveal different details of a smokey fire, demonstrating that a fire-spotting satellite could see ignition sites obscured by smoke. These images are of a 2003 fire in the San Bernardino National Forest near Los Angeles, taken by the ASTER satellite.