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Satellite Imagery Detects Wildfires Automatically

Spotting forest fires in remote areas will be faster and easier this summer as fire-weather forecasters begin using a new technique that automatically detects wildfires in environmental satellite imagery.

At least 19 major wildfires affecting states from Alaska to Florida have burned more than a half million acres, and forecasters expect a long U.S. wildfire season as drought conditions affect the East and West.

To get an earlier warning of rapidly spreading fires, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service will apply a new technique to satellite images used by the National Weather Services and others. Researchers from UW-Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked at UW-Madison's Space Science and Engineering Center to develop the technique (or algorithm) with information from the U.S. geostationary weather satellite, GOES.

NOAA researcher Elaine Prins leads the group's efforts. She says the satellite's data "allows us to detect a fire right after it occurs." The technique is particularly useful with rapidly growing fires for it can provide information on the fire's progress in real time. It is also very useful in finding fires in remote areas.

"We have it [the image] out there in 90 minutes and can do it even quicker with new computers," Prins says. She noted that three years ago it took up to three hours to process a single GOES image over South America. Since then, her group has taken advantage of faster computers to completely revamp the code that processes the satellite information.

The wildfire algorithm is the latest in a string of products developed at UW-Madison that are being used routinely by the National Weather Service and elsewhere.

The product is available for North, Central and South America, and is used by climate change research scientists, resource managers, fire managers, and policy and decision-makers nationally and internationally.

NOAA NESDIS is incorporating the GOES Wild Fire product into the Integrated Hazards Mapping System, which provides fire products derived from satellite images to a Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination group for wild land fire support efforts in the United States. The Navy uses the GOES wildfire product to assess and predict smoke transport and effects on visibility.

The product is also used at the National Zoo in an interactive exhibit about the environment, and will be used in San Francisco's Exploratorium. SSEC researcher Joleen Feltz applies the technique to global change issues.

Chris Schmidt of SSEC transferred the system, called the GOES Wild Fire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm processing system, in March to the NOAA NESDIS Office of Satellite Data Processing and Distribution Satellite Services Division in preparation for the system to become operational this summer.

"The new system is fully automated with expanded error-checking and reporting capabilities," Schmidt says.

Preliminary tests and comparisons of the WFABBA fire product, produced at SSD and at SSEC's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, indicate that the software system is performing as expected. The system will be operational this month, in time for the most intense period of forest fires.

CIMSS focuses on developing products from satellite data that will help make more accurate forecasts. Other products developed in Wisconsin from GOES measurements provide information on atmospheric motions, sea surface temperature, atmospheric moisture and stability, and clouds, says Tim Schmit, NOAA researcher at SSEC. Products developed from the research are shared with the government.

Related website:


[Contact: Terri Gregory, Elaine Prins]






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