Forest fires are destructive and of herculean magnitude. Their occurrence cannot be predicted but measures to prevent them from becoming massive waves of impenetrable danger to nature, health and humankind, can be taken.
NASA has played an instrumental role in alerting the fire patrol from reaching within hours and sometimes within one, to stop it from spreading. It launched Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, on the Terra satellite in 1999, and a second MODIS instrument on Aqua in 2002. MODIS in turn informed the design of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, VIIRS, which flies on the Joint Polar Satellite System’s NOAA/NASA Suomi-NPP and NOAA-20 satellites. Each new instrument represented a major step forward in fire detection technology.
Remote sensing of fires in the first crucial go before it turns into a menace are very necessary. Satellites are bound by limitations in exacting accurate locations. Another issue is sensing the intensity of fire which may be difficult to interpret using satellites. For a closer and more accurate assessment and action, Forest Service Aircrafts do the job. They are installed with tools that transmit data, visualizing wildfire data in web mapping services. These aircrafts are called the National Infrared Operations Program (NIROPS). The Forest Service works closely with NASA to develop these tools.
“Every time we’re scanning, we’re ‘truthing’ that fire,” says an infrared technician with NIROPS, who has flown fires with the program for 10 years. “On the ground, they may have ideas of how that fire is behaving, but when they get the image, that’s the truth. It either validates or invalidates their assumption since the last time they had intel.”
From an altitude of 10, 000 feet, a NIROPS aircraft is designed to detect hotspots 6 inches across, their coverage infrared sensor spans a six-mile strip of land below and can map 300,000 acres of land per hour. This data is then passed on and downlinked on the FTP site where analysts create maps that firefighters can access directly on a phone or tablet in the field. They fly at night when there’s no sun glint to compromise their measurements, the background is cooler, and the fires are less aggressive.