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Can satellites combat wildfires? Inside the booming 'space race' to fight the flames

Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LOS ANGELES — As the threat of wildfire worsens in California and across the world, a growing number of federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and tech companies are racing to deploy new technology that will help combat flames from a whole new vantage point: outer space.

New satellite missions backed by NASA, Google, SpaceX, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other groups were announced this week and promise to advance early wildfire detection and help reduce fire damage by monitoring Earth from above.

Collectively, the roster of big names, billionaires, government groups and nongovernmental organizations reflects a considerable interest in using new technology to solve some of humanity’s biggest problems.

Among them is the Earth Fire Alliance, a global nonprofit coalition that recently unveiled its vision for a constellation of more than 50 satellites that will focus specifically on wildfires and their ecological effects.

Known as FireSat, the orbiting surveillance network will scan the globe every 20 minutes in search of wildfire activity — analyzing the landscape across six spectral bands that can spot signs of fires through clouds, smoke, darkness and extreme sunlight, according to the organization. The first three satellites will be launched and operational by 2026.

“It’s really a game-changer when it comes to resource allocation, because now we have this really high-fidelity picture that’s very, very granular of every single fire, which will ultimately help us better deploy resources in a much more efficient manner,” said Chris Anthony, an Earth Fire Alliance board member and former chief deputy director at Cal Fire.

 

Data and images gathered from FireSat will not only inform crews about the location of fires, but also how hot they are and how fast they are moving — helping to guide firefighting, emergency operations and evacuations, Anthony said.

He noted that during his career battling blazes, he often wondered when California would use its reputation as a global hub of technology and innovation to tackle the issue of wildfires.

“With every large wildfire we have — and the emissions and the carbon that’s released in that smoke — I feel like we’re in this negative feedback loop, which is going to be really hard for us to get out of,” he said. “And I strongly believe that technology and innovation is a core component of our ability to turn this ship in the other direction. I mean, we have to — I don’t think we have a choice.”

Indeed, while California has enjoyed two relatively tame fire seasons thanks to back-to-back wet winters, the threat has not dissipated.

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