Image of a forest with fire burning along the forest floor and a building wrapped in aluminum foil in the background.

Mapping wildfire movement – World Geographer

Researchers are using a new system that combines data collected from two satellites in order to track the movement, perimeter and intensity of wildfires. The Fire Event Dataset (FEDS) is an advance in the field of fire monitoring that emerged from a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Fire Events Data set uses satellite data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometry Array (VIIRS) sensors on board both NASA’s Suomi NPP (National Polar Orbiting Partnership) satellite and the NOAA-20 satellite. The VIIRS sensor detects active fires during the day and night by capturing the thermal infrared energy emitted. Using the information collected from these two satellites, forest fire data can be collected every 12 hours. In comparison, using Landsat satellites to track wildfires can result in a data collection gap of up to 16 days between fire observations.

Near real-time satellite wildfire tracking

FEDS uses an algorithm developed by a team led by researchers from the University of California, Irvine (Chen et al., 2022) that improves fire spread models by providing accurate information about current wildfire activity, expansion, active fire front, and behavior as well as providing data about areas near fires. . -Real-time wildfire emissions.

Near-real-time fire mapping can help fire crews target active fronts of remote wildfires. Image: NPS, public domain.

As satellite technology develops, researchers have increasingly relied on remote sensing data to supplement field and aerial data collected during active wildfires. According to the authors of the paper on FEDS, many satellite observations have been limited in two ways. First, observations were made separately, with each wildfire mapped without considering the interrelationship with other wildfires. Second, these data were often limited by gaps in the data due to the time between satellite passes and interference from clouds or smoke.

Benefits of a fire event dataset

Developing a fire behavior mapping algorithm has several benefits compared to other remote sensing fire maps. Yang Chen, lead author of the paper, noted to NASA, “The thing that really sets FEDS apart is that the system excels at tracking the increasing daily spread of fires at 12-hour intervals. This makes near real-time monitoring possible and allows us to generate more detailed views of fire evolution than we have been able to do in the past.”

Another benefit noted by Douglas Morton, a scientist at the Biosphere Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is that fire crews can use FEDS to determine which areas of wildfires, especially in remote or inaccessible areas by aircraft, are most active and in need. To targeting.

Analyze the behavior of fire in the past

Grayscale map on a black background of California showing the perimeter of two wildfires.
Map showing the location and extent of the Dixie and Caldor wildfires in California using data from FEDS. The Dixie Wildfire, located in Northern California, became the state’s largest single-source wildfire in recorded history, burning an area slightly larger than Rhode Island over 100 days between July and October 2021. The Caldor Wildfire, east of Sacramento, was the fire Second in state history to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The hurricane lasted more than 80 days, passing through the El Dorado National Forest and posing a threat to the communities of Myers and South Lake Tahoe. Map: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, 2021, public domain.

While applications of this fire mapping algorithm have benefits in mapping current wildfires in real time, the authors of the FEDS algorithm study looked at historical fire data in California between 2012 and 2020. The historical perspective allowed the researchers to analyze patterns of fire behavior over eight years of satellite data.

Yang Chen pointed this out to NASA “Many of these fires showed overall quite uneven growth, with enormous growth rates occurring during the first few days after ignition.” Understanding what drives this explosive growth can help improve risk models for future fires in an increasingly flammable world.

Using fire data to track wildfires in Canada

NASA scientists used the FEDS algorithm to track wildfires During Canada’s 2023 wildfire season.

The vast forests and forest areas of Canada’s boreal region are vulnerable to seasonal wildfires due to warm, dry summers. These annual wildfires act as natural disturbances that help regenerate the boreal forest. Under normal conditions, these fires play a beneficial role by releasing nutrients trapped on the forest floor and creating openings in the canopy for new seedlings to sprout. Canada’s wildfire season usually extends from May to September. Melting snow in early May exposes dead plant material, which serves as fuel for wildfires.

Driven in part by climate change, Canada’s 2023 wildfire season set a record with 18.4 million hectares burned compared to an average of 2.5 million hectares that typically burn each year. Lightning sparked many of these fires during the summer, which continued for several months in remote areas of Canada.

A satellite image shows smoke and fire from a wildfire in Alberta, Canada on May 6, 2023.
A satellite image shows smoke and fire from wildfires in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada on May 6, 2023. Image: NASA Terra Satellite.

What is taken into account that the area burned in Canada in 2023 is much higher than average is the number of megafires. Megafires are generally defined as Forest fires burned more than 10 thousand hectares. The hundreds of wildfires burning in Canada in 2023, more than 6,595, have now exceeded 10,000 hectares. The largest wildfire was one that burned 1,224,938 hectares (4,730 sq mi) in Quebec near La Grande 3 Reservoir.

NASA used FEDS to map the behavior of many fires in Canada, showing the perimeter spread of an individual fire and the total area burned. In the video below, the first animation shows the spread of wildfires in Quebec in 12-hour increments since June 1, 2023. The second animation shows the growth of several wildfires burning in the provinces of British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada. .


Chen, Y., Hantson, S., Andela, N., Coffield, S.R., Graff, C.A., Morton, D.C., … & Randerson, J.T. (2022). California wildfire spread was derived using VIIRS satellite observations and an object-based tracking system. Scientific data, 9(1), 249.

Voiland, A. (2023, October 25). Track Canada’s 2023 extreme fire season. NASA Earth Observatory.


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