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The Identification of Wildfires from Air and Space Gets a Major Boost

A 1.5 million USD grant will help improve methods of spotting destructive wildfires from the air and from geostationary orbit. As climate change continues to make the ideal conditions for wildfires  —  increased temperatures, depleted moisture, and dry forest floors  —  more common, methods of combating these conflagrations are getting an important financial boost. 

The Identification of Wildfires from Air and Space Gets a Major Boost

An artist’s depiction of a fire-spotting satellite parked in orbit above California to look for wildfire hot spots 24/7. (Image courtesy of Carl Pennypacker)

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation¹, a philanthropic organization that makes investments in scientifically inspired projects to improve the future, has allocated a 1.5 million dollar grant to a team of academics who will use it to investigate how wildfires spread. 

Carl Pennypacker, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL), and Tim Ball, a physicist turned firefighter, will equip several spotter planes with infrared detectors capable of tracking wildfires. The real-time data collected by these airborne detectors will be used by machine-learning algorithms that can then model 'hotspots' and create a map of fire behavior that firefighters and emergency workers can use to tackle fires and possibly stop them before they rage out of control. 

The map, which the team says could be in the hands of emergency workers just twenty minutes after a fire breaks out, could also contain data regarding the length and geometry of flames. This could be compared with data regarding conditions like humidity and wind speed to help build a model of how rapidly a wildfire will spread and what direction it will spread in.

Ball and Pennypacker believe that the sky isn't the limit for this system. The duo's ultimate aim is to create an instrument package that can be deployed on geostationary satellites allowing global wildfires to be monitored from orbit.  

"We plan to build a system that really delivers a better, more detailed spatial characterization of fires to firefighters in real-time," says Ball, the founder and president of Fireball Information Technologies LLC, a fire assessment and mapping company formed two decades ago. "This will also improve our predictive models to a degree that improves firefighter safety and the tactical and strategic decision making on the ground."

The announcement coincides with a stark reminder of the devastation that wildfires can bring. 

A Case Study Showing Why Wildfire Detection is so Vitally Important

Around the time that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was announcing their investment in wildfire spotting techniques firefighters in northern California were battling a huge fire that has thus far incinerated 190,000 acres.

The Dixie fire, which is raging through Butte County, was gaining ground on Saturday and as of Sunday was only 21% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire combined with another nearby fire on Saturday night making it tremendously difficult for firefighters to contain. This is exactly the kind of event that the system pioneered by Bell and Pennypacker could be used to predict. 

Evacuation events are currently underway in Butte County and surrounding regions and the area is preparing itself for the tremendous economic impact that such wildfires have. 

In 2020, wildfires cost California alone over 12 billion USD, destroying over 10 thousand buildings and taking 33 lives. And dishearteningly, current projections suggest that the impact of wildfires in the state could be even greater in 2021. Both the financial and human losses incurred by such infernos could be reduced by this airborne detection system.

One study estimated that if you can just discover and get to a fire earlier, you would save $8 billion dollars over a decade. If firefighters could be alerted to a fire within 10 minutes  —  if they knew where it was and could get to it, even without any heroic measures, like airborne tankers on constant alert  —  that saves a lot of money and lives.

Carl Pennypacker

For Pennypacker and Ball, the $1.5 million backing of the system is the next stage in a project that began in embryonic form over half a decade ago. 

A Wildfire Detection System Seven Years in the Making

UC Berkeley physicist, Carl Pennypacker, first proposed an airborne wildfire detection system almost eight years ago. The project was initially dubbed the Fire Urgency Estimator on Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO)² and was intended to be a system of drones equipped with infrared sensors and placed in geostationary orbit.

The new system was initially created by teaming with the ALERTWildfire group at UC San Diego (UCSD) to adopt their system of near-infrared cameras located across California. 

Pennypacker then joined this collaboration bringing with him Fireball, which is based in Reno with operations throughout the western United States. The former University of Nevada professor also came armed with connections to a California-based firefighting unit, Cal Fire, and the National Forest Service. The latter of these bodies also operate their own airborne fire detection planes. 

Linking up with engineers at a lab that specializes in the construction of instrument packages for deployment aboard satellites, the duo began to develop their detection system. 

One of the driving ideas behind the project is to use the changing nature of data to help respond to fires in a more effective way. This also means understanding that the way wildfires behave is changing too, with climate change as a major driver of this change.

It is not unusual for wildfires to burn for 20 minutes or more before being reported, by which time they can be beyond easy control. The actual number of fires is down from the 20-year average, but the intensity is up, the size is way up. Although we have fewer fires, they burn a lot more acres.

Tim Ball

Of course, this doesn't mean that the methods by which emergency responders tackle these fires haven't improved also, but Ball suggests even with current improvements, including bigger, better aircraft; more agile fire engines, and better firefighter training, the destructiveness of wildfires still has the lead.

Ball suggests that the most headway in terms of improvement can currently be made in predicting, modeling and understanding how fires spread. Making improvements in these areas is key to helping firefighters stay one step ahead of wildfires rather than 'playing catch-up' with these conflagrations. 

"That is what is different about what we are doing. We can measure tiny spot fires and huge flame fronts, then deliver maps depicting flame size, intensity — energy release — and rates of spread to firefighters on the ground just minutes later," Ball says. "These fire characteristics are, at the same time, what firefighters need to know for tactical and strategic decision-making and what predictive models need to project future fire conditions."

As the airborne system joins the battle against wildfires, Ball and Pennypacker will be using data from the system to refine its performance to perfect a system suitable for geostationary orbit. 

"The airplane system can measure signal strengths and backgrounds and test data flows and analysis software," Pennypacker concludes. "Thus, when we launch the satellite in a few years, we will be flying a well-tested and proven system."


1. FUEGO Payload and Airborne Fire Mapping, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, []

2. Pennypacker. C. R., et al, [2013], The Fire Urgency Estimator on Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO), Remote Sensing,

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Robert Lea

Written by

Robert Lea

Robert is a Freelance Science Journalist with a STEM BSc. He specializes in Physics, Space, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Quantum Physics, and SciComm. Robert is an ABSW member, and aWCSJ 2019 and IOP Fellow.


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