LA Pleading for Missile Warning Satellites To Track Wildfires

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SAN FRANCISCO — Los Angeles County is seeking to add a new tool to its arsenal of firefighting weapons: satellites. Before California’s next fire season, county officials hope to gain access to infrared data gathered by U.S. Air Force missile warning satellites to assist them in detecting wildfires.

On June 16, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sent letters to senators and representatives in Los Angeles’ congressional delegation asking for help in establishing a program. “The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors respectfully requests your consideration in exploring the feasibility of implementing a pilot program to assess the viability of utilizing satellite technology for early detection of wildland fires on Federal land within Los Angeles County,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by Space News. The supervisors added that a recent county report on automated, fire-detection systems found that U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites would be particularly useful in spotting fires.

“The infrared sensors constantly look for the telltale signature of a flame from a missile launch, with automatic analysis of the data,” according to the letter signed by all five county supervisors. “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.”

DSP satellites, which scan the globe every 10 seconds, have proved their ability to spot wildfires. In 1994 and 1995, the U.S. Air Force participated in the Hazard Support Program, according to Anthony Roake, spokesman for the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo. That program, led by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, combined information derived from U.S. military and civil satellites to detect wildfires in the United States and volcanic activity around the globe and reported the results to local agencies. Additional testing of the Hazard Support Program continued in the late 1990s, said Richard Davies, executive director of the Western Disaster Center, a nonprofit research organization based in Mountain View, Calif.

In spite of successful demonstrations, the Hazard Support System was halted in 2001 when the military was ready to hand off the program but no civil federal agency offered the funding needed to operate and maintain it, government officials said. Nearly a decade later, the necessary ground equipment still exists to enable the DSP constellation to assist in wildfire detection; however, a period of operational testing would be required to prove its utility, according to Dee Pack, remote sensing department director for the Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. “Since 2000, the technology has been used for other applications. It could be used for fire detection again if the government wanted to do that.”

The Aerospace Corp. has been involved in the research and development of satellite-based fire detection systems for more than a decade. “We have been conducting research on using satellites to monitor fires and volcanoes,” said Aerospace Corp. spokeswoman Lindsay Chaney. “We have continued to refine the software.”

When Los Angeles County government representatives began investigating the use of advanced technology to aid in wildfire detection, they met with officials from the Aerospace Corp. to learn about satellite-based fire detection. “The county recognized they have a problem with early fire detection, and they were forward thinking enough to consider using satellites,” Pack said.

During a May 25 meeting, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pursue a comprehensive fire detection and fire suppression program that included the use of satellites. With that goal in mind, the supervisors drafted a letter to their congressional delegation. County officials also plan to contact the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Algird Leiga, chairman of Los Angeles County’s Quality and Productivity Commission, told supervisors during the meeting.

NGA officials declined to discuss the merits of using satellites to assist in combating wildfires in Los Angeles. NGA spokesman Marshall Hudson said the agency cannot support state or local agencies directly. Instead, NGA can provide geospatial information to another federal agency that is leading the government’s response to a disaster, according to rules established by the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988.

“When the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency for the 2007 California wildfires, requested NGA provide geospatial information that would aid them in supporting the state’s efforts in combating the fires and assessing the scope of damage, the agency gladly did so,” Hudson wrote in an e-mail. “NGA provided both imagery and geospatial products in support of the federal response to that disaster.”

Air Force officials also declined to comment on any specific plans to use DSP satellites to spot fires in Los Angeles County. The Air Force operates the DSP satellites, which were built by Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles and launched from 1970 to 2007. Northrop Grumman spokesman Bob Bishop said DSP’s infrared sensor has been used to aid in prediction and recovery from natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

Northrop Grumman continues to support the DSP constellation, but the Air Force operates DSP satellites and manages the use of the sensors for environmental monitoring, Bishop said. He referred questions about any future plans to use DSP sensors for fire detection to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Air Force officials there referred all questions to the Air Force Space Command.

Los Angeles County is the most populous county in the United States, but it also includes large tracts of federal land, including the Angeles National Forest and the Los Padres National Forest. More than 645 square kilometers of the Angeles National Forest was destroyed and two firefighters were killed by a blaze that began in late August of last year.