Early Warning Fire Detection Satellite Proposed by Berkeley Scientists

As firefighters emerge from another record wildfire season in the Western United States, UC Berkeley scientists say it’s time to give them a 21st century tool: a fire-spotting satellite. In an article titled “Time is ripe for fire detection satellite, say Berkeley scientists,” Robert Sanders of UC Berkeley’s Media Relations elaborates:

“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 UC Berkeley scientists have designed such a satellite using state-of-the-art sensors, written analysis software to minimize false alarms, and even given it a name – the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO). They’re hopeful it can be built for several hundred million dollars, either by government or private entities.

“If we had information on the location of fires when they were smaller, then we could take appropriate actions quicker and more easily, including preparing for evacuation,” said fire expert Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley associate professor of environmental science, policy and management. “Wildfires would be smaller in scale if you could detect them before they got too big, like less than an acre.”

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.”

With global warming, Stephens said, wildfires are expected to become more frequent and more extensive. This year alone, California’s firefighting arm, CAL FIRE, has responded to over 6,000 wildfires, 1,600 more than average, according to tweets by the department’s information officer Daniel Berlant. Wildfire-prone areas stretching from Spain to Russia could also benefit from their own dedicated satellites.

Fire detection today is much like it was 200 years ago, Stephens said, relying primarily on spotters in fire towers or on the ground and on reports from members of the public. This information is augmented by aerial reconnaissance and lightning detectors that steer firefighters to ground strikes, which are one of the most common wildfire sparks. “Even today, most fires are detected, in some way or another, by people,” he said. “Even the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park this past summer was detected by someone who saw a smoke column.”

But satellite technology, remote sensing, and computing have advanced to the stage where it’s now possible to orbit a geostationary satellite that can reliably distinguish small, but spreading, wildfires with few false alarms. Pennypacker estimates that the satellite, which could be built and operated by the federal government, like the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES); as a partnership between government and the private sector, like the Landsat satellite program; or by a private company alone, would cost several hundred million dollars – a fraction of the nation’s $2.5 billion yearly firefighting budget.

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.

“Simply put, we believe we have shown that this kind of rapid, sensitive fire detection of areas bigger than 10 feet on a side is probably feasible from space, and we have evidence that the false alarm rate will not be crazy,” said Pennypacker, who has designed sensitive satellite-borne detectors for 40 years. “Our work requires further testing, which we are eager to do.” (Read the complete article here.)

Image 1 for article titled "Early Warning Fire Detection Satellite Proposed by Berkeley Scientists"
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 (Berkeley news center article)

Image 2 for article titled "Early Warning Fire Detection Satellite Proposed by Berkeley Scientists"
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 (Ibid.)

Image 3 for article titled "Early Warning Fire Detection Satellite Proposed by Berkeley Scientists"
Projected ratio of additional fire risk for an area, as compared to the expected burned area for each grid cell. The ratio of additional risk was calculated for 30 year averaged periods ending 2020, 2050, and 2085, for one climate change model (GFDL) and one scenario (A2). Darker oranges and reds suggest up to a 10-fold increase in potential area burned in 2020, 2050 and 2085. Data source: http://cal-adapt.org; figure from the Remote Sensing article, op. cit.)

Image 4 for article titled "Early Warning Fire Detection Satellite Proposed by Berkeley Scientists"
Conceptual layout of the FUEGO satellite, with major components labeled (Ibid.)

Image 5 for article titled "Early Warning Fire Detection Satellite Proposed by Berkeley Scientists"
Infrared aerial photograph of the Oakland firestorm of 1991. The fire killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (6.2 km²) destroyed included 3,354 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion (Wikipedia: Oakland firestorm of 1991)