Managing Wildfires With Assistance From Satellites

Fire at vast scale poses enormous challenges. More than 18 million hectares, an area the size of the Netherlands, have been affected across Australia by this season’s emergency-level wildfires. Along with the loss of life, both human and animal (estimates expect around 500 million Australian wildlife casualties this season), the fires carry huge financial impact. The sheer scale of the fires in Australia and California, has surpassed expectations and left both areas unprepared. The main issues have been early detection; understanding and predicting direction of travel and spread; data analytics and delivery speed of information; and tactical and timely allocation of limited resources to prioritize fires to tackle, and assets and areas to protect.

Identifying Location

Earth Observation (EO) satellites utilizing heat sensors can provide rapid information about the location and movement of wildfires regardless of how remote the affected region may be.

Commenting on the application of satellite technology for natural disaster responses in general, Dr. Moira Smith, CTO of United Kingdom data analytics company D-CAT, says: “When combined with the latest complementary sensor data processing technologies, EO data from satellites will deliver the immediate common situational awareness information required for effective command and control.”

Early Detection and Prediction

Early detection is critical, but Earthscope CEO Sam Murphy says that in California, most fires are first reported by phone to 911. “The optimal solution is to use high resolution data derived from a satellite constellation, something EarthScope is working towards,” he says.

In Australia, one specific capability in use is the IOD-1 GEMS (Global Earth Monitoring System) which is a 5 kilogram, 3U CubeSat built by AAC Clyde Space, and flying an instrument developed by Orbital Micro Systems. This captured microwave radiometric data over Australia, measuring the impact of the wildfires and highlighting key features, including smoke plumes.

Automating EO Data Distribution

Automation of the satellite imagery distribution chain has helped reduce the time between data collection and delivery from weeks to minutes. Replacing human processing with cloud-enabled automated data processing allows operators to instantaneously provide end-users with EO data in analysis-ready form.

SkyWatch’s Graham Stickler believes it is crucial that operators plan for the automation of their data distribution to allow time and cost-efficient application in the context of wildfire or other extreme natural disaster events. He says that solutions like SkyWatch’s TerraStream were “built to allow new and current constellations to maximize usage of their collected data.”

D-CAT CEO Phil McLachlan agrees that to build holistic solutions, while “one satellite can often provide an array of insights, such as fire detection and vegetation health, it is increasingly recognized that the intelligent combination of multiple satellite imagery sources can bring additional value, such as subsoil moisture detection to complement tree stress or health measurements.”

Prioritizing Responses

Harnessing EO data and maximizing accurate temporal information usage in allocating public authorities’ resources for the benefit of their communities offers potentially significant advantages in effective resource allocation. At the European Space Agency (ESA), Sentinel radar and optical satellites offer coverage typically every three days over Australia. With appropriate processing freely available, Sentinel-2 can highlight the location of active fires or burned areas.

Improving this with less time-delayed data from future networks and combining refined visual images with, for example, related weather forecasting data, ground moisture and vegetation levels along with terrain factors both at scale and also on a local level, can further enhance effective response capability.

Dr. Chris Brunskill of the U.K.’s Satellite Applications Catapult points to the potential prospects for “the availability of low-cost, reliable, small satellites … which has increased considerably over the past few years … and has the capability to provide consistent, science-quality data at a fraction of the cost and time of more traditional approaches.”

While wildfires may be a natural part of life in some regions of the world, climate change threatens warmer, drier weather in fire-prone areas, and there is more vegetation available to burn earlier in the season.

The levels of destruction are increasing each year, stretching resources beyond demands previously experienced. EO capabilities, if understood managed and applied effectively, can offer valuable assistance for those combating wildfires. VS

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