Terrestrial Tour: Firefighting from Space

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Earth-observing satellites offer a unique perspective of fires before, during, and after the damage is done.

Special Thanks: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Observing System. Scientific Visualization Studio, USDA Forest Service
Produced by: Space Telescope Science Institute, Office of Public Outreach
All images and animations courtesy of NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
  • Fischer Fire photo by Dan Fiorito and compliments of wildlandfire.com
  • Esperanza Fire photo copyright AP/Ric Francis
  • Elk Bath photo by John McColgan, Alaskan Type I Incident Management Team, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Fire Service
  • Mount Stromlo Observatory photo copyright Stephen Byron
  • Nuttall Complex Fire photos by Lance Lines, University of Arizona Police Department
  • Hayman Fire smoke plume photos courtesy of Chris Peterson and the USDA Forest Service
  • Lightning photo credit NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; DAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory
  • Rabbit Creek Fire aftermath photo by Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Photo of smoke in downtown Denver copyright AP/Zalubowski
  • Photo of trees in Pike National Forest burned by the Hayman Fire courtesy of Jack Carlson
  • Nuttall Complex Fire aftermath photos by Ron Smallwood and Lance Lines, University of Arizona Police Department
  • Waterman Canyon photo by Robert Meyer, U.S. Geological Survey
  • Cheesman Reservoir aerial photo by Erik Martinson, Colorado State University
  • Photo of sediment flowing into Cheesman Reservoir courtesy of the USDA Forest Service
  • Hydrophobic soil photo by Bob Nichols, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Written by Vanessa Thomas
  • Designed by John Godfrey
  • Music courtesy of Associated Production Music

Title, Firefighting from Space
A satellite image of smoke rising from a forest below.
A wooded area engulfed in red and yellow flames.
Text. On our planet, fire is a force to be reckoned with.
The ruins of a building still on fire, charred black.
Text. Fire can rob people of their homes, property, communities, and even their lives.
The Esperanza Fire of 2006 destroyed this home and took the lives of five firefighters defending another home in Southern California.
Two dear stand at a river bank. On the opposite side of the river, bright yellow flames shoot up through the trees.
Text. Fire ravishes forests and grasslands, devastating wildlife habitats.
The top of a round white building is charred black.
Text. Remote communities and astronomical observatories surrounded by forest or grassland are especially vulnerable.
On January 18, 2003, bushfires west of Canberra, Australia overtook Mount Stromlo Observatory and Canberra suburbs.
The fires killed four people and destroyed more than 500 homes.
A firefighter wearing a white helmet looks up at cream colored plumes of smoke.
Text. Although some ecosystems benefit from fire, fires often need to be tamed to protect lives, homes, and wildlife habitats.
Fortunately, firefighters have some help from above from satellites.
A satellite image of smoke
Text. Earth -observing satellites offer a unique perspective of fires before, during, and after the damage is done.
Satellite view of smoke from fires near Waycross, Georgia in April 2007.
Headline. Before a fire, weather risks. Satellites help predict where fires might start.
Text. Drought is a fire's best friend
Small, innocent flames swell into uncontrollable blazes by feeding off dry vegetation. Extreme drought gripped Colorado in the summer of 2002.
Two side by side images of the state. Satellite observations revealed changes in Colorado's vegetation from 2001 to 2002. Brown areas had abnormally dry, unhealthy vegetation.
Time lapse of a topic graphical map showing Denver and Colorado Springs starting 06/09/2002. A small area turns red to the west of the cities. Text. In early June, a campground fire near Denver quickly grew in to the largest fire in state history.
Huge clouds of grey smoke fill a blue sky above homes.
Text. The Hayman Fire burned for almost a month, consuming 133 homes and forcing thousands to evacuate.
A satellite image. Fires detected from space are outlined in red. Text. California and Oregon were suffering from drought in July 2002 when lightening sparked nearly 400 fires along the states' shared border.
Some merged into the Biscuit Fire, the largest blaze in North America that year.
The red dots get closer together.
A time lapse satellite image of the United States on 05/03/2002. Text. By monitoring clouds and rainfall, satellites identify dry areas susceptible to fires.
In the spring of 2002, a lack of rain in the western US heightened the risk of fire that summer. A time lapse of the satellite image through 05/14/2002. Colored areas indicate rainfall. Throughout the entire time, there is no rainfall shown in the western states and very little in the rest of the country.
Multiple streaks of lightening glow pink in a dark night sky.
Text. One NASA satellite can detect 90% of lightening strikes around the world
A world map shows lightening flashes per square kilometer per year. Text. This can help identify places where lightening and drought might conspire to spark a dangerous fire.
Headline. During a fire, battling the flames. Satellites help control fires.
Six locations are circled on an image, each are filled with smoke. Text. Each year, tens of thousands of wildfires flare up in the United States.
Often, there aren't enough resources to fight every fire.
Satellites help firefighters decide which fires pose the greatest threat.
A world map. Red and yellow locate fires burning on January 22, 2002. Text. Satellites can detect fires that cover less than a square mile
Smoke covers a coastline. Red marks where a satellite detected fires near San Diego.
Text. When a fire is obscured by smoke or clouds, infrared sensors can detect its heat.
Two images side by side, one with visible light, the other infrared. Text. The visible light image on the left shows only smoke, but an infrared light image on the right reveals burning fires in yellow and burned areas in orange.
A charred downed tree lies on a grey forest floor surrounded by blackened trees and ash.
Text. The hottest fires are often the most devastating.
Some are so hot they burn into the soil, robbing it of the nutrients needed for new plants to grow.
Temperature sensing satellites reveal which fires are hottest, guiding firefighters to places that need immediate attention.
Headline. During a Fire, Health Hazards. Satellites track smoke and gases from fires.
Dark smoke and orange flames fill the air above a green forested hillside.
Text. Fire not only spreads fear and danger over land, it extends its vicious reach through the air in the form of smoke.
A satellite image from 6 17 2002 of the United States. Text, In June 2002, satellites watched smoke from the Hayman Fire and Arizona's Rodeo-Chediski Fire waft into other sates and Mexico.
The satellite image tracks to June 27.
Thousands of green trees stand, but the horizon is completely filled with smoke.
Text. The higher smoke rises, the farther it tends to travel
Satellites can measure the height of smoke as well as wind speed and direction
This helps officials warn communities when smoke could invade their neighborhoods.
A thick haze over a city filled with skyscrapers.
Text. Smoke from Colorado's Hayman Fire plagued Denver in June of 2002, causing respiratory problems for some residents.
A satellite image from 06/09/2002 of Denver and the nearby forest. Grey smoke is shown in varying heights. Text. One satellite measured smoke from the Hayman Fire as it spread over Denver. Red shows the fire's location. Purple indicates the populated areas.
A map of the US mostly covered in green. An area over Colorado and surrounding states is red, orange, and yellow. Text. Fires also release toxic gasses into the environment. Invisible gasses such as carbon monoxide usually persist longer and drift farther than visible smoke particles do. Some satellites can detect and measure these noxious emissions.
A satellite tracked carbon monoxide from fires in the southwestern US in August 2000. A time lapse moves from August 8 to August 30 showing the red and orange areas moving across the country.
Headline. After a fire, Damage assessment and recovery. Satellites provide a head start in recovery from fires.
Low, barren hills beyond a stripped forest.
Text. Even after the flames have gone out, some dangers remain
A rocky hillside with scraggly burnt twigs.
Text. Where a fire has stripped an area of vegetation, heavy rains can lead to flash floods and erosion.
A huge fallen tree and boulders and rocks next to a house.
Text. A wildfire burned the slopes of Waterman Canyon near San Bernadino, California in October, 2003.
Two months later, intense rains induced mudslides that killed 14 people.
A lake with dark water surrounded on all sides by trees.
Text. Floods wash ash and debris into rivers and lakes, polluting drinking water and aquatic habitats.
A wide swathe of dark soot and ash runs across a beach and into a body of water.
Text. After the Hayman Fire, ash and sediment washed into the Cheesman Reservoir, which supplies Denver with 15% of its water.
Tall thin trees stand in a forest. The ground is bare of any grass or low foliage.
Text. Tree leaves often have waxy substances that help them retain water.
After being vaporized by a fire, these waxes coat the ground, which then repels water.
This can prevent seedlings from getting water they need to grow and replenish the forest.
A man wearing a bright yellow hard hat and shirt carrying a small case looks down from a cliff at burned trees below. Text. Once a fire is out, emergency teams must quickly assess damage and identify threats to wildlife, water sources, and nearby houses. But surveying hundreds of thousands of acres is time consuming and expensive.
A satellite image of a forest with the majority of the inner section colored dark red.
07/07/2002. This satellite based image shows burned areas from the 460,000 acre Rodeo Chediski Fire.
Using such data, fire assessors can guide recovery teams to critical areas where they can prevent further damage and help new vegetation grow.
A sky covered in thick smoke.
Text. With allies in orbit, we gain a new perspective on fires.
A globe with several spots colored red.
Text. Earth-observing satellites help us understand the powerful force of nature and its impact on our world.
Special thanks to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Earth Observing System, Scientific Visualization Studio, USDA Forest Service.
Produced by Space Telescope Scientific Institute, Office of Public Outreach. All images are courtesy of NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.
For more information, visit the Earth Observatory Website, earth observatory dot NASA dot gov.. The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA, under contract with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.