Clearer Satellite Imagery Improves Wildfire Mapping

Aug 4, 2015

The U.S. Forest Service now has a better view of wildfires from space, thanks to a new agreement with NASA.

This Aug. 3 map shows fire activity detected by VIIRS in the last 6, 12 and 24 hours. Yellow spots indicate all fires detected since January 1.
Credit USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program

The agreement gives wildland fire managers access to data from a satellite imaging system called VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite). In the daytime, VIIRS can theoretically detect a flaming fire just 50 square meters—about the size of a small house. At night, VIIRS can detect a fire five times smaller. That’s an improvement on current technology, called MODIS, which routinely detects wildfires about 1,000 square meters in size.

The Forest Service has used satellites to track wildfires since the 1990s. The information helps the agency make decisions about where to allocate firefighting resources at the regional and national level.

Wildfires in the U.S. burn an average of 7 million acres a year. A combination of factors has increased the risk of large, catastrophic fires in Arizona, including drought and unnaturally dense forests.