NASA Tracking California Wildfires From Space

California is currently enduring one of the worst wildfire seasons in its history. After the devastating fires that caused thousands to evacuate in winter 2019, NASA has decided to use some of its resources to assist the state in tracking the fires in hopes to predict how they’ll move.

The scientists helping with this mission are a part of the agency’s Applied Sciences Disaster Program in the Earth Sciences Division. The division is currently making maps and other data products that can be used by experts to track any active fires and the smoke plumes that they emit. This information is not only extremely useful in tracking current wildfires, but also for identifying areas that may be susceptible to future ones.

David Green, the manager of the Disasters Program at NASA claims that the information will also be used after the fires are put out, to watch out for any environmental hazards that may occur as a direct result of the fires; landslides, mudslides, sinkholes, etc. 

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“When disasters like this occur, we are able to swiftly respond to requests from our partners who need images and mapping data.”

The data is collected from a multitude of satellites that pass over the state. Multiple satellite instruments are used to capture and track different kinds of environments near the wildfires such as desert terrain, bodies of water, forest land, and more. This information is crucial for post-fire hazards as well as tracking how each element of the fire (smoke plumes, flames) is moving. 

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument is able to view Earth’s surface in visible infrared and thermal-infrared wavelengths. This basically means the satellite is able to detect, capture, and track the smoke, heat, and size of the fires and thus track the way its moving. The ASTER data specifically is helping firefighters on the ground locate the source of these fires so that they can better allocate their resources. 

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Another satellite instrument being used is known as the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), which captures images that helps scientists better understand how high and far smoke particles from the plumes travel. The data also can identify what type of particles are in the smoke specifically. This information is especially crucial as it informs experts what areas of the country are at risk of poor air quality and visibility. 

Airborne smoke particles can also be extremely harmful to our health, as inhaling massive amounts of plume smoke can increase one’s chance of cardiovascular and respiratory disease. So tracking the smoke specifically is just as important as tracking the fires themselves. NASA is currently working with the California National Guard in sharing this data so they can properly send out their resources to the places that need it most. 

In combination with other scientific instruments on the ground, these multiple satellites can help scientists predict future wildfires by characterizing the ones that have been appearing most often within the past year. By labeling each type of wildfire, scientists are able to understand their long-term effects and how they start in the first place. As of right now data collection and the wildfires are ongoing, if you live in California remain diligent, and listen to your local firefighters when it comes to future procedures.