By Terri Gregory,

Spotting forest fires in remote areas will be faster and easier this
summer as fire-weather forecasters begin using a new technique that
automatically detects wildfires in environmental satellite imagery.

At least 19 major wildfires affecting states from Alaska to Florida
have burned more than a half million acres, and forecasters expect a
long U.S. wildfire season as drought conditions affect the East and

To get an earlier warning of rapidly spreading fires, the National
Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service will apply a
new technique to satellite images used by the National Weather
Services and others. Researchers from UW-Madison and the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked at UW-Madison’s Space
Science and Engineering Center to develop the technique (or algorithm)
with information from the U.S. geostationary weather satellite, GOES.

NOAA researcher Elaine Prins leads the group’s efforts. She says the
satellite’s data "allows us to detect a fire right after it occurs."
The technique is particularly useful with rapidly growing fires for
it can provide information on the fire’s progress in real time. It
is also very useful in finding fires in remote areas.

"We have it [the image] out there in 90 minutes and can do it even
quicker with new computers," Prins says. She noted that three years
ago it took up to three hours to process a single GOES image over
South America. Since then, her group has taken advantage of faster
computers to completely revamp the code that processes the satellite

The wildfire algorithm is the latest in a string of products
developed at UW-Madison that are being used routinely by the
National Weather Service and elsewhere.

The product is available for North, Central and South America, and
is used by climate change research scientists, resource managers,
fire managers, and policy and decision-makers nationally and

NOAA NESDIS is incorporating the GOES Wild Fire product into the
Integrated Hazards Mapping System, which provides fire products
derived from satellite images to a Geospatial Multi-Agency
Coordination group for wild land fire support efforts in the United
States. The Navy uses the GOES wildfire product to assess and
predict smoke transport and effects on visibility.

The product is also used at the National Zoo in an interactive
exhibit about the environment, and will be used in San Francisco’s
Exploratorium. SSEC researcher Joleen Feltz applies the technique
to global change issues.

Chris Schmidt of SSEC transferred the system, called the GOES Wild
Fire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm processing system,
[] in March to the
NOAA NESDIS Office of Satellite Data Processing and Distribution
Satellite Services Division in preparation for the system to become
operational this summer.

"The new system is fully automated with expanded error-checking and
reporting capabilities," Schmidt says.

Preliminary tests and comparisons of the WFABBA fire product,
produced at SSD and at SSEC’s Cooperative Institute for
Meteorological Satellite Studies, indicate that the software system
is performing as expected. The system will be operational this
month, in time for the most intense period of forest fires.

CIMSS focuses on developing products from satellite data that will
help make more accurate forecasts. Other products developed in
Wisconsin from GOES measurements provide information on atmospheric
motions, sea surface temperature, atmospheric moisture and stability,
and clouds, says Tim Schmit, NOAA researcher at SSEC. Products
developed from the research are shared with the government.