By Ezra David Romero
An army of firefighters deployed this summer to fight blazes across California. Many of the larger fires take more than just hand crews on the ground and air tankers dropping retardant or water from the sky to help put out a blaze. Now, a new tool is being used to detect how fires grow from space.
While crews fought to keep the over 80,000 acre Detwiler Fire from reaching the historic gold rush town of Mariposa near Yosemite a separate crew was watching from an entirely different angle.
“We can see the darker reds here,” says Kris Mattarochia, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service Hanford office, pointing to satellite imagery on his computer. “This is the fire temperature hot spot. We can see pretty much this is the current location of the Detwiler Fire.”
During the Detwiler Fire burning in June, Mattarochia says his team — about 100 miles away in California's Central Valley – was able to detect exactly how the fire was moving in almost real time using images from a brand new satellite. There was a moment when his team saw a massive flare up and contacted crews on the fire three counties away.
“And [my colleague] said, hey look, I see that it looks like this fire is getting hotter,” says Mattarochia. “Do you see the same thing on the ground? Basically the meteorologist on the ground said the fire did jump the line briefly.”
This technology is called the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series, or GOES-R. The newest satellite, GOES-16, was launched last November in a partnership between NASA and NOAA to improve severe storm watches and wildfire detection. The stationary satellite relays information to earth in as little as 30 second intervals. It’s currently under a year of testing, but forecasters are already using the data to help inform crews fighting fires.
“When something happens like a blowup on the fire the forecasters in Hanford were able to see that immediately,” says Thomas Wright, the incident meteorologist on the Detwiler Fire. “They text me to find out what was going on and I was able to tell them so just getting those rapid updates like that really help out a lot not only with being able detect fires, but to monitor what’s going on.”
He says previous data were delivered every 15 minutes, but the new data can be requested by the minute for 18 hour intervals.
“I’m sitting right next to the fire behavioral analysts who are listening to the radio and they hear some traffic about something that's happening,” says Wright. “They’ll ask me do you see it on satellite and if we’re getting the one minute resolution then yes I can usually see it.”
Fire officials like CAL FIRE Spokesman Tim Chavez are also using the data. Chavez worked the Detwiler Fire and says every morning he’d look at satellite data to see how the fire grew.
“In the early stages of fire it's literally like the fog of war,” says Chavez. “I mean it's so confusing as to where the fire is located. The GOES satellite helped us to estimate where the fire was at the end of the evening. That helps us to predict where it's going to go the next day.”
Still, Chavez says the data don’t replace the brute force needed on the ground to put out a blaze. But he says it’s useful for figuring out where to send crews.
“I’ve been doing this type of work for 10 or 15 years and to have something that’s looking down on us 24 hours a day that we can use to locate where the fire is at is like a dream come true,” says Chavez.
Mattarochia says in the coming months his office will integrate a first-responder alert system with the data.
“We see a hotspot, we click on that particular area,” says Mattarochia. “It’ll automatically put the latitude and longitude of that hotspot into a text message and automatically send it based on that location to the right party.”
Mattarochia says the data could get even better when a second GOES satellite is launched next year. NASA and NOAA also plan to launch a satellite, the JPSS-1, in November that can detect global weather patterns and fire data like location, temperature, and how smoke and ash move.