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Earth from Orbit: Tracking Fires from Space

March 11, 2021

From March 7-9, 2021, NOAA satellites monitored numerous fires over the Southern Plains.

Some of this activity may be due to wildfires, but the majority are most likely prescribed burns, which have long been used for landscape and ecosystem management across the U.S.

According to the U.S. Forest Service , prescribed burns offer many benefits, including helping to protect human communities from extreme fires, improving habitat for threatened and endangered species, and promoting the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plant life.

GOES-16 (GOES East) observed these fires in near-real time. This geostationary satellite keeps constant watch over the same area, and helps to locate fires, detect changes in a fire’s behavior, and predict its direction. By combining data from multiple channels on its Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument, both a fire’s hot spot and associated smoke plume can be visualized.

The NOAA-20 satellite captured high-resolution imagery of the fires on March 9. This satellite’s VIIRS instrument has an imager band with high spatial resolution, at 375 meters per pixel, which allows it to detect smaller, lower temperature fires. VIIRS provides nighttime fire detection capabilities through its Day-Night Band, which can measure low-intensity visible light emitted by small and fledgling fires. VIIRS also contributes to the HRRR-smoke model, which tracks the movement and thickness of wildfire smoke, and provides smoke forecasts up to 24 hours into the future.

Satellites allow for detecting and monitoring a range of fires , providing information about the location, duration, size, temperature, and power output of those fires that would otherwise be unavailable. Satellite data is also critical for observing and monitoring smoke from the fires. This information helps firefighting efforts from the air and enables better air quality forecasts.

Timely satellite imagery is critical, life-saving information in a dynamic fire environment. In the past, incident meteorologists had a single low-resolution image that updated every 15 minutes — typically the image was already 20 minutes old when it arrived at the forecaster. Now, GOES-16 and GOES-17 frequently detect fires before they are spotted on the ground – often 10 to 15 minutes before emergency notifications to 911.