Posted on September 12th, 2013

Reaching Orbit – Wildfires

RimFire_webNASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of the Rim Fire on August 23, 2013. (Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL, MISR Team)silver-fire-burn-severityA LandSat 8 derived burn severity map of the Silver Fire. Areas in red have the highest burn severity, followed by yellow and then green with the least amount of burning. (Image Credit: USDA Forest Service, Burned Area Emergency Response Team)

NASA satellites have been hard at work, not just monitoring our ecosystem and atmosphere but providing much needed imagery for wildfire prediction, outbreaks, containment and management. The Rim Fire in Tuolumne County, California has burned over 230,000 acres and destroyed 111 structures  this year. It is one of many fires larger than 100,000 acres that have consumed significant land in the US this year.

The recently launched LandSat 8 is already pulling its weight as images taken of the Silver Fire in New Mexico (that burned over 130,000 acres) are being used in recovery and planning efforts after the initial damage was done. Remote sensing analysts use the near-infrared band to detect healthy vegetation in the area and compare it to the shortwave-infrared band, which reflects better off of charred earth. A ratio of these two bands is taken from both before and after the fire then a burn severity map is created. These maps are used to plan restoration efforts in the most impacted areas. Managers also use these burn severity maps to mitigate the risk of flooding after hillside vegetation has been destroyed.

LandSat data collected over the past decades is also used as part of a planning tool, called Landfire, to help predict wildfire patterns and behaviors. It incorporates maps of US land cover that include vegetation and tree stand data. Combined with meteorological data, managers use Landfire to predict wildfire movement and to aid in prevention and recovery. The effort to put this tool together is extensive and exhaustive, it has to be update annually to be as accurate as possible. And each yearly update takes about 24,000 LandSat scenes.

NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites also monitor the Earth’s surface and fire activity with the assistance of identical Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on each. Data from the MODIS instrument gives scientists insight into future wildfire outbreak by predicting droughts throughout North America.


This video depicts dry conditions from the 1980s projected into 2100. They predict that the drying trend will increase, leading to more wildfires in the Plains.

Yearly trends in drought and wildfire activity along with climate models point to a drier and fiery future for North America. The areas at risk to wildfires will spread as summer comes earlier and stays longer, allowing less time for the snow pack to accumulate during shortened winter months. Natural fluctuations in weather patterns have also contributed to recent fiery summer seasons with warm and dry La Nina periods coupled with high-pressure systems and gusty winds.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163
Katie@apollomapping.com

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