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Scientists Propose Satellite Early Warning System For Forest Fires 91

Posted by timothy
from the wickerman-division dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "As firefighters emerge from another record wildfire season in the Western United States, Robert Sanders reports at the UC Berkeley News Center that scientists have designed a satellite using state-of-the-art sensors, that could view the Western US almost continuously, snapping pictures of the ground every few seconds searching for small hot spots (12 m2) 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. "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," says fire expert Scott Stephens. Fire detection today is much like it was 200 years ago, 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. 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. Carl Pennypacker estimates that the satellite, which could be built and operated by the federal government, would cost several hundred million dollars – a fraction of the nation's $2.5 billion yearly firefighting budget. "With a satellite like this, we will have a good chance of seeing something from orbit before it becomes an Oakland fire," says Pennypacker. "It could pay for itself in one firefighting season.""
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Scientists Propose Satellite Early Warning System For Forest Fires

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  • Manned! (Score:5, Funny)

    by mbstone (457308) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @07:08AM (#45447505)

    Instead of an automatic system there should be a space capsule with a human park ranger spotter inside.

    In the off-season it should be left vacant so anybody can come and live there for free.

    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      "Instead of an automatic system there should be a space capsule with a human park ranger spotter inside."

      Human? Didn't you mean Ursine?

    • by glavenoid (636808)

      Or we could combine it with the proposed early-warning asteroid-collision alert system and direct the asteroids to extinguish the forest fires. Solve two problems at once!

  • That's cool (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 17, 2013 @07:11AM (#45447509)

    Don't forget, though, that large wildfires only happen because there aren't enough small ones.

    That is, if an area burns out, there's no fuel left for another fire, at least for a while, and the ashes and room are good for growth. If you consistently put out all the fires, you end up with forests full of fuel waiting for a gigantic fire to happen.

    So merely spotting and putting out isn't good enough. The forest needs to burn now and then, too.

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      Or we can have pretty forests with firebreaks.

      We actually have that capability in the 21st century. It's true.

      • Re:That's cool (Score:4, Informative)

        by TapeCutter (624760) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @08:42AM (#45447755) Journal
        The black Saturday fires in Victoria had a 15km high plume that created it's own weather and wind, it was igniting spot fires 20km ahead of the front. There is no simple fix, it's about risk management.
        • by Joce640k (829181)

          Sure, once it got going.

          The idea behind this is to get there a bit earlier and stop it before it has a chance to get that big.

          • by icebike (68054)

            The point TapeCutter was trying to make is that fires grow from a barely detectable (10 feet on a side, per the article) to a couple acres in size in minutes, and once you get a stand of trees with a running crown fire it will spit fire across huge firebreaks. This will happen much faster than you can dispatch smoke jumpers or even organize a water drop.

            He was not discounting the satellite solution, he was pointing out that Firebreaks would be ineffective.

            Firebreaks aren't the answer and probably do as muc

      • by slick7 (1703596)

        Or we can have pretty forests with firebreaks.

        We actually have that capability in the 21st century. It's true.

        Or we could put those pesky drones to better use with real time surveilance and find the root cause of the fires...NAH.

        • Or we could put those pesky drones to better use with real time surveilance and find the root cause of the fires...NAH.

          In the USA, most fires are started by human activity. But most BIG fires are started by lightning in remote areas. Fires started by humans are usually quickly reported and extinguished. Fires started by lightning can get too big to control before they are even detected. This satellite system would mostly help with the remote fires started by lightning.

          • Re:That's cool (Score:4, Informative)

            by Macgrrl (762836) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @06:52PM (#45450751)

            Assumption #1; fires started by lightning would presumably have some form of cloud cover (lightning point of origin), would this obscure the view of a 10mx10m fire until after it has become large enough to be dangerous?

            Is it common to have lightning without clouds? I'm trying to think if I recall ever seeing lightning out of a clear sky.

            I live in Victoria (Australia) and remember the Ash Wednesday bushfires from a first hand - sitting on the beach watching it come down the hill because we were cut off before the evacuation call went out - point of view. As such, I have an interest in anything that gives an early warning.

            • by slick7 (1703596)
              Infra-red>cloud cover
              • by wagnerrp (1305589)
                Can you actually get 10' resolution (they said 12 square meters, so 3.3m x 3.3m) in the infrared band from geosynchronous orbit, or is that just the minimum area of forest that must be burning to get a visible temperature spike?
                • by slick7 (1703596)
                  Why geo? Drones are lot closer. Besides, spy satellites are leo.
                  • by wagnerrp (1305589)

                    Why geo? Drones are lot closer. Besides, spy satellites are leo.

                    Because the summary....

                    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.

          • by slick7 (1703596)
            What about terrererists?
          • by tlhIngan (30335)

            In the USA, most fires are started by human activity. But most BIG fires are started by lightning in remote areas. Fires started by humans are usually quickly reported and extinguished. Fires started by lightning can get too big to control before they are even detected. This satellite system would mostly help with the remote fires started by lightning.

            Some big fires are started by humans too.

            The interesting thing is, even with stuff like campfire bans, humans still cause the majority of forest fires - not u

    • Despite the recent fire in NSW, hitting spot fires fast in the fire season has been proven to reduce the damage from bushfires, off course you need to combine that with slow controlled burns in the off season. There's no "silver bullet", but a satellite would be a handy weapon.
    • Controlled burns happen all the time for that purpose already. We don't need to have uncontrolled burns.
    • Re:That's cool (Score:4, Insightful)

      by fermion (181285) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @11:40AM (#45448439) Homepage Journal
      There is much evidence to suggest that the aggressive fire management is the reason we have such big fires. Fires are a natural part of the forest. Some trees have even evolved to depend on fire for the life cycle. Be it lightening or accidentally human fire there is no reason why a fire in the forest needs to be put out. Maybe limited with fire break, but not put out. The damage of a fire is often caused when it has been prevented so often that it burns so hot that the forest cannot regenerate.

      In am also not sure what the value is of risking human lives to save property. It seems every year so family has lost a loved one fighting a forest fire. Why? So someone's replaceable home can be saved? A forest fire should be treated like a hurricane. There is time secure the belongings and evacuate.

      • Re:That's cool (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Macgrrl (762836) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @07:01PM (#45450811)

        Anecdotally, during the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires [wikipedia.org] in Victoria (Australia), roughly 1/3 of the state burned. That's with fire crews actively trying to put the fire out and prevent it from taking over highly populated areas.

        It is not inconceivable that left unattended significantly more area would have been consumed, and that it would have reached population areas such as Geelong or Bendigo, which could not easily have been evacuated.

        To give you an idea of the speed it was traveling, at the point we were evacuated, we were told the fire was at Airey's Inlet and we had less than 5 minutes to get to the beach at Road Knight before it was due to hit. It takes roughly 10 minutes to drive to Airey's from where we lived at the speed limit (100kmp).

        Bushfires spring up out of nowhere, are largely unpredictable as they can make their own winds and change direction in a moment. While you can predict high risk days, you don't know where they will start - unlike a hurricane which takes time to form and you can see it coming usually days in advance.

      • by manu0601 (2221348)
        I wish I had mod points for you. Indeed preventing small fires leads to giant ones.
    • by fredrated (639554)

      That is why controlled burns have become a favored tool of wildfire management.

    • by jamiesan (715069)
      Also, remember: Only Hugh can prevent Florist Friars.
  • Use GPS (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 17, 2013 @07:13AM (#45447517)

    Every GPS satellite has automatic nuclear-detonation detectors [fas.org] built in. Just turn the sensitivity up a little bit, and presto! A global forest fire detection system.

    • Re:Use GPS (Score:4, Informative)

      by digitalchinky (650880) <dtchky@gmail.com> on Sunday November 17, 2013 @08:06AM (#45447673)

      No need to turn up the sensitivity at all. SBIRS / STSS has been around since the 70's or 80's - these (optical / IR) satellites search for ballistic missile launches and track those already in progress. Wildfires and a myriad of other heat sources would logically be filtered out since they don't represent a military threat, certainly the NRO would whine about it exposing capability, but it seems to me that the USA already has this technology orbiting the earth already. These 3 letter agencies have taken a lot more than they've given back, maybe it's time to shift focus and put some of this hardware to better use.

      • by penix1 (722987)

        certainly the NRO would whine about it exposing capability

        "But...But... They will see the big board!" -- General 'Buck' Turgidson (George C. Scott)

        http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0003295/bio [imdb.com]

      • The link provided by the OP is 14 years old. This is not evidence that current GPS satellites have optical (or any of the sensors mentioned) on board. They could be on board but the optical sensor is designed to detect "the optical time signature of NUDET bursts " which is probably not the same as a wildfire shortly after ignition. If the detector could also designed or tweaked to detect very small fires this would be a real advance.

        The detector is not just a camera with a telephoto lens and IR filter (w

  • 12 square meters? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    i bet there's some existing satellites with even better resolution and heat detection capabilities than that... but they're off-limits to the national park service and other forest/wildlife agencies......

  • by Anonymous Coward

    How does this reflect the paradigm of viewing wild fires as natural events, the suppression of which is a modification of nature which leads to build up of fuel sources creating larger fires, although that is only one side effect of the change in natural processes, many others of which can have other negative repurcusssions?

    It seems as if the paradigm here is that all fires will be stopped. If 100% achievable that possibly could cut out the first mentioned side effect of fire suppression, but none of the o

    • by Mysticalfruit (533341) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @09:29AM (#45447887) Journal
      I was wondering the same thing... part of the reason we're in the mess we're currently in is that for the last 30+ years instead of letting fires burn in a controlled way we've just prevented them entirely.

      Now we've got land that's just choked with burnable material just waiting for a spark.

      I'm all for building such a satellite and launching it but I think that it should be part of a larger strategy surrounding responsible fire management, not just prevention.
  • We could really use this in Australia.
  • by TheRealHocusLocus (2319802) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @08:07AM (#45447675)

    The rhino would provide valuable partner to achieve wildfire control in forested and urban settings. This species would quickly achieve a comfortable equilibrium with humans, and would be far less invasive than, say, Red Box vending machines.

    Fire protection demo:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ81dcD1N8s [youtube.com]

    Working with humans: assisting in tree-climbing:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNUUKirMfVM [youtube.com]

  • Stop stopping fires (Score:5, Informative)

    by Tailhook (98486) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @08:09AM (#45447683)

    It's supposed to burn.

    Don't turn this simple, natural reality into a problem by preventing fires until you have a giant pile of fuel that inevitably erupts into a biblical disaster.

    Since it's supposed to burn, we don't need early detection to make putting it out easier. So put away the satellites; the Department of the Interior can just not expand by another $63 kabillion in the name of "fighting" forest fires with a space program so they can "respond" to the site of some hapless rural leaf burner with a squad of jack-booted enviro-thugs.

    Sorry if your vision of the perfect home is a mountain mcmasion embedded in a sylvan paradise. That's just how it is here on Earth where wood eventually burns. Clear the perimeter or risk losing it to the next natural and necessary forest fire.

    "They" won't let you clear the perimeter to protect your property? Enviro-statists suck; stop voting for them. "They" banned controlled burns and other forest management? Enviro-statists suck; stop voting for them.

    • And personally, I agree with you about mountain cabins, be they of the 800 or 8000 square foot variety. And, in fact, the Dept of the Interior et al do let plenty of wildfires burn out.

      That written, cities are the natural habitat of mankind, and we do have an obligation to protect more urban settings.

    • by Livius (318358) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @08:56AM (#45447799)

      People who run parks are professionals who know this.

      The goal is to manage forest fires, not ignore them.

    • I can see both sides of a controlled burn. Yes, it is probably the right thing to do. But the first time it got out of control and burned a bunch of houses down, the crap would hit the fan. Can you imagine the news footage of the people who's houses were burned down by a fire set intentionally by the government. Wow. I don't generally like politicians more than anyone else, but even I could understand the motivation to not be put in this position.

      • by sribe (304414) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @10:24AM (#45448117)

        I can see both sides of a controlled burn. Yes, it is probably the right thing to do. But the first time it got out of control and burned a bunch of houses down, the crap would hit the fan. Can you imagine the news footage of the people who's houses were burned down by a fire set intentionally by the government.

        Colorado residents do not have to imagine this; we lived it this year. Homes destroyed, people dead, because the state forest service ignored its own guidelines for setting and monitoring controlled burns.

        Hint: you defer the controlled burn when winds are predicted to be gusting to 60-80 m/h in the days after the burn.

        Hint: when guidelines call for you to have personnel monitoring the burn site for a certain period afterward, you have the people up there at least most of the time; you do not leave it unattended for days.

        Hint: when guidelines call for the personnel you send to take a source of water (in other words, small tank truck) with them, you do not send two guys in a pickup with shovels.

        Hint: when guidelines say it is time to call in an emergency, and there's no phone or radio service, the two guys should abandon their shovels long enough to get to where they can call, rather than continuing to beat at individual hot spots in a gradually losing race until the thing explodes.

        Whether or not they learned these lessons, we do not know, because of course the bureaucrats went into full-on defensive mode and refused to admit error, refused to out who it was that made the catastrophic decisions, and so on.

      • I live near the El Dorado National Forest in California. There are frequently notices of controlled burns. I've yet to ever hear of a problem or controversy about it. Seems like a solved problem to me.
    • by TapeCutter (624760) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @09:21AM (#45447859) Journal
      Pull your fat head in mate, because you don't have a fucking clue what you are talking about. Here in Australia the bush can burn to the ground one year and do the same fucking thing the next, there's this season in between called spring where if it's a wet year it all grows back in THREE MONTHS. Large parts of the black Saturday fires had burned the previous season and had been deliberate burnt again in early spring, yet we still had a firestorm [wikipedia.org] strong enough to melt windscreens and engine blocks. And no we're not talking about people sitting on top of a tree covered mountain, the most damaging and deadly fires occur in the outer suburbs of major cities such as Melbourne, Athens, and Los Angeles.

      NOBODY, especially environmentalists, have "banned controlled burns" anywhere on the planet, that's just some lunatic tea party bullshit that makes your puny brain feel good about itself. In fact over here "environmentalists" have been instrumental in getting the experience of 40kyrs of native fire control practice recognised and at least three states now employ natives to teach and practice it.

      the site of some hapless rural leaf burner with a squad of jack-booted enviro-thugs

      Seems to me your the only one who wants to "kick heads". And really, what the fuck has bushfire control got to do with someone burning a pile of leaves in their yard?

      • by LWATCDR (28044)

        Actually you are over reacting and not reading what he said. He said nothing about environmentalists.
        Here is what he said, "Enviro-statists suck; stop voting for them."
        I also think he is a bit off. There is a problem with people fighting controlled burns an a much bigger one in the past. People like lush green forests and hate to see them burn. To set them on fire really drives a lot of people nuts. That being said controlled burns are used and with good effect in many areas. The problems with controlled bu

        • by Macgrrl (762836)

          As to Australia and there firestorms and fires? So what? I mean it is Australia and everything in the country is trying to kill you anyway. You know that even the imported bunny rabbits will eventually evolve into a venomous animal. Just kidding but yes you guys have some real problems with fires.

          Why would a rabbit need to be venomous when it can have big, sharp, pointy teeth [wikipedia.org]?

      • by sribe (304414) on Sunday November 17, 2013 @10:28AM (#45448135)

        NOBODY, especially environmentalists, have "banned controlled burns" anywhere on the planet, that's just some lunatic tea party bullshit that makes your puny brain feel good about itself. In fact over here...

        Actually, over here, the US Forest Service pursued a policy of 100% fire suppression, never letting anything burn if they could stop it, for 50 fucking years. Whether or not environmentalists had any role in this, I do not know. But environmentalists have had a significant role in blocking the type of selective logging, "patch clear-cutting", which is what we need to reduce the danger and start to restore a healthy balance in western forests.

        So, I'm glad that your environmentalists have played such a role in your country. But that doesn't mean ours are not idiots, and in fact on this subject most of ours are uninformed idiots.

      • While it may be true that 'NOBODY, especially environmentalists, have "banned controlled burns" anywhere on the planet.' never the less they have been effectively halted in many venues. Two main reasons are: 1) Lack of funding - There's little funding for prescribed burns (US lingo) and 2) Agency and personal liability - If there is no chance the prescribed fire can escape it probably won't burn well enough to accomplish objective of the burn. Thus there is always the possibility of escape. Escaped fir

      • ...the most damaging and deadly fires occur in the outer suburbs of major cities such as Melbourne, Athens, and Los Angeles.

        It gets somewhat more complicated than that in Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Mountains run between the LA basin and the San Fernando Valley and are (mostly) covered with chaparral, [wikipedia.org] which makes great fuel for brush fires. And, as the climate is semi-arid, fire season is any time that there hasn't been measurable rain for at least 90 days, which means that there can be brush fires
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      planted forests aren't supposed to burn...

      (in plenty of places in the west the eco nuts are trying to preserve artificially made, that is planted, forests(because they've been growing for 50 years and apparently that's as good as god created eternity for 'em. forests consisting of trees that take 50 years to be old enough for sale).

    • Partly correct. Yes, it's supposed to burn but whether it burns in a controlled manner or completely uncontrolled is another matter. Controlled burns and effective management of the forest which includes logging i.e. thinning the forest to attain optimum trees per acres works and everybody benefits. Closing off the forest to all human activity eventually results in disease and extreme fuel loads which when burned essentially sterilize the soil for generations which is what happened at Yarnell Hill.

    • It's supposed to burn.

      It's easy to let somebody else's house burn, but when it's your own property going up it's a different story.

      The really big, destructive fires here in Colorado the past few years have all been exaggerated by drought and short-term weather conditions. "Letting it burn" doesn't work in these situations; if you don't stop fires quickly, you wind up losing hundreds of houses, as we've been through several times recently.

  • It works by tracking muzzies [liveleak.com]
  • I wonder what record they're talking about? This year there has been 43,001 fires, fewer than any of the preceding 9 years, and 4,116,348 acres burned, fewer than any of the preceding 9 years except 2010 (numbers from http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm [nifc.gov] ).
  • Can the DSP or SBIRS constellations do this when over the US and not looking for ICBM launches over foreign territory? I bet they can but maybe the NSA is already tasking them to scan our homes to see what we're grilling outside for dinner (it aids with drone strike accuracy probably :) )
  • What good is it going to do when the BLM decides to get territorial for 48 hours preventing local wildfire crews from containing the fire early which ultimately results in the death of 19 firefighters?

  • The only mention of cloud cover I could find was in the full paper:

    FUEGO — Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit — A Proposed Early-Warning Fire Detection System [mdpi.com]

    One quote from the paper:

    Atmospheric transmission windows in the near and mid-infrared are adequate for detecting fires. Fires
    cannot be seen under heavy cloud cover, and can be detected with reduced sensitivity under smoke and
    thin clouds, depending on the wavelength of the detectors, smoke particulate size, and moisture content
    of the atmospheric column.

  • For a few hundred million.

    How about if you create a networked grid of tethered balloons over the areas of concern. You can also use to monitor growers, illegal timber harvesting...

    • by arobatino (46791)

      Balloons also have the advantage of being below the clouds, so not affected by cloud cover. Drones might also work. Though balloons or drones might be vulnerable to lasers from the ground.

  • Just use drones ... and while you are at it, why not let the drone drop a missile design to take out the oxygen of the fire or spread the fuel.
  • I used to be a security guard at the National Interagency Fire Center "NIFC" in Boise. NIFC has got all those sensors you just mentioned and has been running for 25 years, its a war room setting a lot like the pentagons nosc, lotsa big screens that look a lot like the something out of wargames. Things like thermal sensors to spot fires from orbit and also orbital lightning strike detectors too. Really facinating to look at.

Life would be so much easier if we could just look at the source code. -- Dave Olson

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