Military satellites, because they tend to have utilitarian rather than research-oriented missions, often find new and in many cases unforeseen nonmilitary applications. The best example of this is GPS, which is as important today in civilian life as it is to the military. Even classified imaging satellites, always in high demand but especially these days with U.S. troops actively engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, are frequently tapped for civil purposes, including environmental monitoring, and disaster planning, assessment and management. 

Early detection of wildfires is another area where military assets — specifically the U.S. Air Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellites — could prove extremely useful. DSP satellites are equipped with powerful infrared sensors designed to spot the fiery exhaust plume of missiles as they lift off, a capability that appears readily adaptable to fire detection. It’s not just a concept: DSP data have been used in the Hazard Support System, a pilot program hatched in the mid 1990s that used various government satellites to provide early warning of wildfires and volcanoes. But the program, led by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, was abandoned in 2001 when no civil agency would step up to take over its funding and management.

With fire season now under way in much of the American West, including California, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has written the state’s congressional delegation seeking its assistance in establishing a pilot program to examine the feasibility of using DSP satellites for full-time wildfire detection. “Since a missile flame has characteristics similar to a wildland fire, the satellites should be able to detect forest and brush fires just as effectively,” the supervisors wrote, demonstrating a basic grasp of DSP technology.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, the severe outbreak of wildfires in California in fall 2007 caused nearly $2 billion in property damage; in 2008, that figure was $1.4 billion. This does not include the cost of suppressing the fires or the loss of economic output resulting from the conflagrations, not to mention the loss of lives. California is particularly vulnerable to wildfires due to its dry climate and the fact that some of its most densely populated areas abut forested parkland.

All of which is to say that California’s congressional delegation should make Los Angeles County’s request a priority. This is a delegation that — in addition to its obvious obligation to protect its constituents — is the nation’s biggest, counts among its members people who know a thing or two about DSP and missile warning, and has real influence at the Pentagon.

The lawmakers should begin right away by examining the feasibility of making the DSP constellation available for fire detection on a full-time basis, something that is by no means a given. The number of satellites in the DSP constellation, along with their health and locations, is classified information; one cannot assume — particularly in the wake of the late 2008 DSP 23 failure and in light of delays to the follow-on Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) — that the system has sufficient capacity available to watch for fires in the American West while also keeping tabs on missile fields in Russia, China, the Middle East, North Korea and elsewhere.

But assuming there is sufficient capacity, or will be once the SBIRS satellites start coming on line, Congress should, in consultation with the White House and Pentagon, select the appropriate civil federal agency to resurrect and maintain the Hazard Support System. The technology has already been developed, and has even been refined since the program was allowed to lapse. To quote a remote-sensing expert at the Aerospace Corp. in Los Angeles, “It could be used for fire detection again if the government wanted to do that.”

As for the agency best suited to take on that role, there are a number of candidates, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Forest Service and possibly the U.S. Geological Survey — all have relevant missions and some expertise in satellite technology. Giving the selected agency the resources necessary to operate a wildfire warning system should not be an issue: It is difficult to imagine this costing more than a few tens of millions of dollars annually — if that much. Not only is that a manageable number, it is dwarfed by the potential savings — and not just in terms of property and firefighting resources — if just one fire is detected by the system and snuffed out before it can spread out of control.

Clearly it is in the space industry’s interest to seek out and welcome new constituencies for space-based capabilities, not that missile warning isn’t important enough by itself to justify investment in systems like DSP and SBIRS. But setting aside the industry benefits, if there are opportunities to leverage these or any other military space assets in the civilian world, especially in a public safety role, the government needs to exploit them to the maximum practical extent. That’s just common sense.