Every year in the United States, over 100,000 wildfires scorch 4-5 million acres of land. While they’re technically impossible to predict and prevent, there have been several concerted efforts to contain and minimize the devastation a wildfire can inflict. One of the most pivotal factors behind implementing this tricky equation is identifying wildfires as quickly as possible, many of which start in forested highly unpopulated areas.
In an effort to gain a firmer grasp of this situation, the National Weather Service (NWS) and Oklahoma Emergency Management (OEM) are collaborating with a new satellite mapping program specifically aimed at detecting wildfires in the Sooner State. Known as the Watch Officer Map, the project ‘s eyes in the sky are satellites used by the NWS that normally track severe weather formations. The system was first introduced about a year ago, and uses a “watch board” that detects “hot spots” (heat signatures or smoke plumes) based on temperature readings, which are essentially hotter areas on the map that are distinguished by color. Upon detection of a potential hot spot, Oklahoma’s emergency management services are notified via text message and email with the exact coordinates of the location. Now the NWS and OEM use these satellites to actively monitor any parts of Oklahoma that experience dry spells for signs of wildfires the same way severe weather is tracked from space.
This project is convenient for both groups involved, since the NWS usually winds up spotting many wildfires first. The Watch Officer Map also notifies OEM personnel of potential wildfires before they even receive local reports. This enables them to arrive at the pinned locations a lot sooner to assess the nature of the blaze, which potentially saves lives and property from being destroyed. The system recently proved its worth when wildfires broke out on Sunday in Okmulgee County of Southeast Oklahoma.
“Had we not made the initial call, they would have been behind just a few minutes maybe those few minutes would have made a difference,” Said Steve Piltz, Chief Meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
The method of using satellites for controlling wildfires isn’t necessarily new, and has been around for quite some time. In 2015, NASA funded satellites and satellite-based tools to better detect, monitor, and predict the behavior of wildfires across the United States. Using satellites to detect and monitor wildfires was a technique NASA helped the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United States Forest Service (USFS) adopt that was deployed on a nationwide scale. Several different groups used this system to communicate and track wildfires in their respective region, which caused a great deal of confusion and technological instability.
This prompted the NWS and OEM’s satellite program to solely focus on wildfire activity in the Sooner State, making the task of monitoring for fires a lot simpler, information easier to share, along with communication between local fire departments, state forestry, and emergency services. Moving forward, the OEM and NWS hope their next step will be to improve coordination with helicopters sent to extinguish wildfires using the Watch Officer Map.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense