As resin-loaded pine trees explode into flame hundreds of kilometres into
the primal Canadian forest, high-tech firefighters are turning to the latest
in satellite technology this summer to battle these ferocious blazes. Now
the mopping-up operation is under way, REMSAT, an ESA-supported satellite
ground station which supplies up-to-the-minute fire mapping and logistics
support, is clearly a vital part of the firefighters arsenal.

160 kilometres up a muddy, one-track logging road in British Columbia,
REMSAT was deployed to aid 180 fire-fighters battling two ‘project fires’ —
those that require a full incident management team, with logistical and
administrative support, camp facilities for crews and much more. The REMSAT
system is housed in a container, carried by a truck or large helicopter to
within sniffing distance of a fire, deploying a 1.2 m satellite dish aerial,
which has a 2 Mb receiving data rate (96 Kb transmitting rate) communicating
through the ANIK E-1 geostationary satellite.

“We had no access to any type of non-satellite based telephone service,”
explains Steve Newton, Manager of the Lillooet Fire Zone for Canada’s
Kamloops Fire Centre. “FM Radio for the area also had severe limitations and
had to be supplemented with local temporary repeaters set up exclusively for
this project. The Sullivan Creek fire was approximately 725 hectares, caused
by lightning. The Game Creek fire covered about 412 hectares and the
suspected cause is from industrial activities.”

“The fires were both located in extremely rugged and steep terrain, and most
of the area within and around the fire perimeters was only accessible by
helicopter,” explains Newton. “As if that wasn’t enough,” he continues,
“the valley where the fires were situated is also used for the relocation of
grizzly bears who are causing problems with humans. There were magnificent
glaciers cascading out from between surrounding mountain ranges. And on a
daily basis, the crews were working on slopes in excess of 100%.”

“Some of the REMSAT systems equipment was damaged on the drive in but in a
manner that would shock most engineers, we were able to rebuild it with a
roll of duct tape. Because of the extreme topography in the area, we had
some initial concerns about being able to see the satellite but they proved
unfounded once on site.” Newton adds.

“Firefighters were quick to appreciate the value of REMSAT,” he explains.
“They were like children in a candy store when the IKONOS imagery arrived
via the downlink to the field,” comments Newton. “The Incident Management
Team and other operations personnel were amazed at our ability to deliver
such high quality one metre resolution imagery to the middle of nowhere.
When the initial resource request came in for the REMSAT unit, we put in
a request for the most recent satellite imagery of the area available on
a Friday morning. IKONOS was able to task their satellite the following
morning, Saturday, and by Sunday night we had the final processed product
on our laptop in the field.”

“Once the satellite link was established,” Newton continues, “we were able
to download archived satellite imagery and GIS data sets almost immediately
to begin our mapping. We then took the Incident Management Team’s hand
drawn maps and digitized a preliminary perimeter for each fire. The next
day we walked and flew the perimeters and control lines and generated some
GPS data sets, which gave us a more accurate picture of what was out there.
What was absolutely amazing, however, was when the one metre imagery arrived
from the IKONOS people. We were able to zoom in to a level such that hand-
cut control breaks less than one metre in width and the large boxes that
deployed fire hose was packaged in were recognisable. When the GPS satellite
land topology was overlaid on the one metre imagery, I was able to zoom in
and edit the line geometries by hand so that they were exact.”

The REMSAT system provided telephone and fax support functions for the
Incident Management Team. Reliable communications are critical to managing
any emergency incident, especially to the administrative, planning,
logistical, and line operations functions. High speed internet access
provided by the REMSAT system proved invaluable to the Incident Commander,
as well as the Fire Behaviour Specialist because they were able to access
several online weather sites containing such tools as near real-time
satellite imagery, 500 millibar charts and long range forecasting models.
E-mail with digital photo attachments was used to keep senior managers
regularly updated on daily activities.

“Information management in forest fire and other emergency incident types
will not be the same in British Columbia after this summer,” says Newton.
“This REMSAT system definitely filled an operational void that has existed
for far too long.”

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Related Links

* REMSAT at Sullivan Creek Camp


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* Earth Observation


[Image 1:]
Early stages of Game Creek fire (Photo: Province of British Columbia).

[Image 2:]
Landsat image with Sullivan fire boundary (Photo: Province of British Columbia).

[Image 3:]
IKONOS imagery of Game Creek fire (Photo: Province of British Columbia).