Aug. 12, 2022 — Wildfire has ravaged the Western United States throughout the last decade. Over three million acres have already burned across the country this year. As fires spark earlier and extend further into autumn each year, turning from “fire seasons” to “fire years,” the National Interagency Fire Center reports that many Western U.S. regions show above-average fire potential.
From predicting big blazes to preventing future fires, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are tackling the problem of increasingly intense wildfires from numerous scientific angles. And they’re keeping our lights on in the process.
Fighting fires… from space
While firefighters battled blazes on the frontlines in 2021, a team of scientists helped from a unique vantage point: outer space. PNNL data scientist Andre Coleman leads RADR-Fire, the satellite image processing system that maps active fires. RADR-Fire helps firefighting personnel, utilities operators, and other decisionmakers better understand a fire’s behavior so they can make informed choices in the midst of natural disaster.
But it’s also a planning tool. The same information gathered by the RADR-Fire system can help utility operators assess risk by identifying areas that are most prone to wildfire and which energy infrastructure needs protection. Sensors riding aboard many different satellites—one of them an experimental sensor aboard the International Space Station—grant a sweeping view of Earth’s surface.
Some satellite-based sensors can reveal where fuel is strong, like areas with dry, densely packed vegetation. Others show where vulnerable infrastructure, like transmission lines or generating stations, fall within a fire’s path. Coleman’s team has worked with firefighters to add new capabilities to the system, like the ability to flag where fire retardant drops have landed. As firefighters battle fires on the ground, RADR-Fire provides valuable intel from above.
Conventional fire mapping techniques involve nighttime aerial imaging aboard firefighting aircraft. Wildfire analysts process images after the aircraft return to base, often drawing the fire’s shifting boundaries by hand based on the aerial imagery. Those maps help firefighting decisionmakers allocate limited resources and strategically manage the fire. But the costly process often takes hours, views can be obscured by thick smoke clouds, and poor weather can ground planes, which often aren’t available when multiple fires demand attention.
RADR-Fire accomplishes the task quickly and more equitably. Where fire observation aircraft are often dedicated to the largest, most dangerous fires, RADR-Fire can assess smaller wildfires that rarely get scarce aircraft attention, whether they’re inching toward cities or moving through uninhabited countryside. Its sensors can peer through smoke and detect heat, showing exactly where and how hot fires are burning even when visibility is low.
RADR-Fire is not a single-point panacea, however. The mapping ability is just one crucial tool among many, meant to support ongoing wildfire management efforts. Today, Coleman and his team use a similar satellite network to share seasonal, near-term forecasts of fire risk with power utilities. By processing sensor data focused on vegetation surrounding energy infrastructure, Coleman maps the “fuelscape,” flagging especially water-starved areas that are rich with dry, fire-sustaining fuel.
“These seasonal forecasts are really an extension of our RADR-Fire work,” said Coleman. “At its core, RADR-Fire is about monitoring active wildfires. But we’ve extended our tools using satellite remote sensing to now understand the condition of fuels, so we get the most current and updated picture of what’s going on.”
Coleman’s team helps utilities identify other grid-related risks. If a substation or powerline corridor is surrounded by dry brush and humidity levels are low, they can flag not just that fire risk, but also the impact of a regional power shutoff. Utilities must understand the consequences of power shutoffs for a variety of services, including hospitals, assisted living facilities, police stations, water treatment and delivery, and more.
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Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL’s News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.
Source: Brendan Bane, PNNL