Monitoring California’s wildfires using satellite technology

Technology is already playing a role in monitoring and assessing the damage caused by the wildfires in California. Governor-elect Gavin Newsom plans to use satellite technology in coordination with a new camera network as an early-warning system.

Two major wildfires have left indelible scars across California over the last week. NASA’s Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) team is tracking the devastation from above with assistance from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites.

The Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire are now considered the most devastating and dangerous fires in California’s history. NASA satellites have been observing these fires – and the damage they’re leaving behind – from space. However, the focus of satellite monitoring has shifted.

Besids monitoring air quality from the smoke using satellites, NASA personnel are at work mapping the damage caused by the blazes. A team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, using Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA), is producing synthetic aperture radar images from the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites.

 

NASA s ARIA team created this Damage Proxy Map showing the impact of the Camp Fire in Northern Calif...

NASA’s ARIA team created this Damage Proxy Map showing the impact of the Camp Fire in Northern California. The white rectangle shows a closer view of the town of Paradise.
NASA/JPL/Cal Tech

ARIA and FIRMS monitoring

ARIA is a collaboration between JPL and Cal Tech using radar and optical remote sensing, GPS, and seismic observations for hazard science and response. In the above image – called Damage Proxy Maps – the yellow and red spots show changes to the grounds surface, with red indicating more severe fire damage.

“Although the maps may be less reliable over vegetated terrains, like farmland, they can help officials and first responders identify heavily damaged areas and allocate resources as needed,” NASA says. The maps are extraordinarily useful to government agencies, especially with California expecting rain later this week along with the resulting mudslides.

NASA also makes use of its Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) to distribute near-real-time (NRT) fire data within three hours of a satellite overpass using both the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).

This information is helpful in letting fire managers and natural resource managers know where to focus fire crews to quickly respond to a fire, according to NASA.

Another thing that is interesting about the satellite images is that they also pick up previous damge from wildfires. In the image above, not only can the burn scar from the Woolsey Fire be seen by its pinkish spot in the center of the image, but to the northwest, a large patch of tannish area marks where the Thomas Fire burned last December.

Early warning camera system

During his campaign, Governor-elect Gavin Newsom outlines a plan for a high-tech system utilizing a camera network that gives an early warning of wildfires in forests and other high-fire areas.

That plan is now being looked at with renewed interest after last week’s fires and with the state facing longer and more devastating fire seasons, according to CNBC.

PG&E, California’s largest utility is going to play a major role in the early warning camera expansion. As has been reported, PG&E is under investigation as a possible source of the current Camp Fire in Butte County.

Newsom’s plan calls for utilizing artificial intelligence as well as early warning infrared cameras around the state that can spot wildfires and enable quick response by firefighters. There are 80 infrared cameras already in place around the state, but this is not enough to give the coverage needed.

However, they have already proved to be a valuable resource – allowing fire managers to spot blazes early and take action before a fire gets out of hand. The number of infrared cameras is expected to grow more than six-fold over the next few years, covering thousands of square miles of fire-prone areas, including forests and rangelands.

PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado tells CNBC the utility has a goal of having 600 cameras by 2022, covering about 90 percent of their service territory.

PG&E’s camera system is a collaboration between the utility and University of California San Diego and the University of Nevada-Reno and is part of the West Coast’s AlertWildfire.org site. The site has live video, time-lapse and pan-tilt-zoom function cameras that can be controlled by fire managers and other key response personnel.

 

View of a high-definition wildfire watch camera in San Diego County.

View of a high-definition wildfire watch camera in San Diego County.
alertwildfire.org

“My estimate is that it will reduce the damages by tenfold,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis. “It will dramatically reduce the lives lost and damage cost caused by these fires.”

Southern California Edison told CNBC this week it has installed fire-monitoring cameras in Orange County and plans to put more across its service territory in Southern California. Additionally, the company is also being investigated for its possible connection with the deadly Woolsey Fire.

“Fire has become the most pressing hazard faced by Californians,” said Neal Driscoll, professor of geoscience and geophysics at Scripps Oceanography in San Diego and co-leader of the AlertWildfire site. ”The plan is we’re probably going to have about 100 new cameras in before the end of this year, ” he said.

 

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