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Taking the Wild out of Wildfire

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Dec 1, 2015:  Wildland fires in the U.S. torch an average of 7 million acres of land each year. The western U.S. is one of the worst wildland fire ‘hotspots’ on Earth. In the western states, drought and heat are the perfect ingredients to make wildfires wilder. The hot, dry conditions make bone-dry fuel out of plants and trees, and winds can sweep a fire along as fast as 14 miles an hour.

A new NASA-funded tool is taking some of the ‘wild’ out of wildfires by making it possible for U.S. fire managers to better spot and track fires.

The new tool uses high-resolution data from a special sensor on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. Past satellite images of wildfires have shown where fires are burning. But except for the largest fires, they don’t show clearly where the devouring flames are headed. Images from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on NPP are almost three times more detailed -- about 1,200 foot resolution vs 3,280 foot resolution.

This means officials can detect and map even relatively small fires and track their progression in much finer detail. Fire managers can better target their attack before a fire morphs into an out-of-control inferno incinerating everything in its path.

The VIIRS data can be used with a state-of-the-art weather-fire model to predict 12-18 hours in advance of how a fire will shift direction based on weather and land conditions. Within minutes of the satellite overpass, users can pinpoint active fire locations and anticipate sudden blowups and shifts in a fire’s direction that could help keep firefighters out of harm’s way.

The Meraka Institute in Pretoria, South Africa served as an early adopter of the new fire product, putting it to use during several large wildfires in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

Meraka’s Philip Frost said, “We had some serious wildfires in September 2014, and the VIIRS 375-meter data performed excellently.”

Wilfred Schroader of the University of Maryland Collage Park said, "We hope that by infusing the higher resolution detection data and fire behavior modeling outputs into tactical fire situations, we can lessen the pressure on those working in fire management." Schroeder leads the project team that developed the weather-fire model along with Janice Coen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

The new VIIRS fire detection product was developed with support from NASA's Earth Science division, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Active fire maps of the United States are available online at: http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us