News Release

New Satellite Mapping Technique Gives Firefighters Big Picture

August 20, 2001 -

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today the use of satellite image technology at the Forest Service's Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) to give firefighting agencies a detailed picture of multiple wildland fires spread across several states.

This new kind of regional perspective will help the agencies manage firefighting resources strategically, especially during peak fire season activity, thanks to a partnership among the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, NASA, the University of Maryland, and the National Interagency Fire Center.

"Through a collaborative effort, we can now use images beamed back to earth from a NASA satellite to make strategic decisions as we combat wildfires across the nation," said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. "This is especially critical when firefighting resources are stretched to the limit as they are this fire season."

RSAC is a detached unit of the Forest Service's Washington, D.C., office, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. In addition to its work in support of fire management, the center contributes to projects in watershed restoration, range management, and forest planning. NASA currently delivers moderate-resolution satellite images and active fire locations to RSAC. These images and fire locations are generated from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, instrument carried aboard NASA's Terra satellite.

"Many different sources of information are typically used to develop an overall understanding of the regional fire picture with most of the information coming from individual incidents," said RSAC Operations Program Leader Keith Lannom. "A reliable synopsis of information will help ensure that firefighting resources are deployed as efficiently as possible."

The Forest Service is building a satellite image processing center in Salt Lake City capable of generating near real-time images of the western United States. This capability will be fully functional by late fall. RSAC will continue to receive images of the eastern United States from NASA via the University of Maryland. In addition, University of Maryland researchers are working on the development of advanced algorithms for detection of active fire locations and assessment of post-fire conditions.

These maps are available via the Internet to regional and national fire management teams by 6:00 a.m. Because the maps cover large areas, they are intended for strategic planning, rather than tactical decisions.

RSAC is evaluating MODIS imagery to help the Forest Service and other agencies assess the severity of burned areas and evaluate the effectiveness of environmental restoration work -- such as erosion control and re-seeding -- carried out by the Forest Service's Burned-Area Emergency Rehabilitation Teams.

Dr. Wei Min Hao, project leader of the Fire Chemistry Project at the Forest Service's Fire Science Laboratory in Montana, is developing a MODIS application to track smoke generated by wildfires. Fires that generate large amounts of smoke are more difficult to map because reconnaissance planes can't fly in close enough to gather data. The information will be useful in combating smoky fires and in predicting a fire's impact on regional air quality.