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The New Frontier: Satellites Inform Fire Personnel About How Blazes Spread

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GOES-16 Geocolor Imagery with Fire Temperature of Detwiler Fire

While crews fought to keep the Detwiler Fire in California’s Central Valley from reaching the historic gold rush town of Mariposa, a separate fire crew was watching the blaze from an entirely different angle - space.

"In the early stages of fire it's literally like the fog of war. The GOES satellite helped us to estimate where the fire was at the end of the evening." - Tim Chavez, CAL FIRE

“We can see the darker reds here,” says Kris Mattarochia says science and operations officer at the National Weather Service Hanford office. “This is the fire temperature hot spot. We can see pretty much this is the current location of the Detwiler Fire.”

During the Detweiler Fire, Mattarochia says his team was able to detect exactly how the fire was moving in almost real-time using images from a brand new satellite. There was a moment when one of his members saw a massive flare up of heat on the screens and contacted crews on the fire.

“And he said hey, it looks it looks like this fire is getting hotter,” Mattarochia says. “Do you see the same thing on the ground? Basically the meteorologist on the ground said the fire did jump the line briefly.”  

This technology is called the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series or GOES-R. The newest satellite, GOES-16, was launched into space last November in a partnership between NASA and NOAA. The ideas is to improve weather forecasts, severe storm watches and wildfire detection. The satellite captures information from space, relays it to earth and can be retrieved in as little as 30 second intervals.

GOES-16 is currently undergoing a year of testing, but forecasters like Mattarochia in Hanford are already using it to relay anything suspect to fire officials by looking at heat maps of California created by filtering data. His team was even able to alert CAL FIRE a few weeks ago about a brush fire in Kern County.

“Someone noticed a hot spot at night and sent it out on a tweet,” Mattarochia says. “Afterwards we were in communication with CAL FIRE and they said we didn’t know anything about that, so that raised our situational awareness and attention.”

"I've been doing this type of work for 10 or 15 years and to have something that's looking down on us 24 hours a day that we can use to locate where the fire is at is like a dream come true." - Tim Chavez

Thomas Wright is the incident meteorologist working at the command center on the Detwiler Fire. He says the information received from GOES is crucial for informing fire officials about fire behavior because previous data would come in about every 15 minutes. While the new data is delivered every five minutes but can be requested every minute in 18 hour intervals.

“When something happens like a blowup on the fire the forecasters in Hanford were able to see that immediately,” Wright says. “They text me to find out what was going on and I was able to tell them so just getting those rapid updates like that really help out a lot not only  with being able detect fires, but to monitor what’s going on.”

Wright uses at least four feeds from multiple satellites, but says the GOES feed is the most consistent giving info from about a mile from the earth.

“I’m sitting right next to the fire behavioral analysts who are listening to the radio and they hear some traffic about something that's happening,” says Wright. “They’ll ask me do you see it on satellite and if we’re getting the one minute resolution then yes I can usually see it.”

Meteorologists aren’t the only ones using this technology. CAL FIRE Spokesman Tim Chavez is working the Detwiler Fire. He says every morning fire officials look at the data coming in to see how the fire has grown.

“In the early stages of fire it's literally like the fog of war,” says Chavez. “I mean it's so confusing as to where the fire is located. The GOES satellite helped us to estimate where the fire was at the end of the evening. That helps us predict where it's going to go the next day.”

Chavez says the data doesn’t replace the brute force needed on the ground to put out a blaze. But he says its use on the Detwiler Fire shows how useful it is when figuring out where to send crews.

“I’ve been doing this type of work for 10 or 15 years and to have something that’s looking down on us 24 hours a day that we can use to locate where the fire is at is like a dream come true,” Chavez says.

Back at the National Weather Service’s Hanford Office Kris Mattarochia is monitoring the screens for any activity. As he zooms in on the Detwiler Fire the heat from the blaze is obvious, it’s glowing bright red. In the coming months he says his office is about to integrate a first-responder alert system with the data.

“We see a hotspot, we click on that particular area,” says Mattarochia. “It’ll automatically put the latitude and longitude of that hotspot into a text message and automatically send it based on that location to the right party.”

Mattarochia says he expects the data coming in to get even better when a second GOES satellite is launched next year focused on the Western United States. The one currently in the sky will be refocused onto the Eastern half of the country.  The new satellite may be able to see within a kilometer from the earth's surface, which Mattarochia says will change the firefighting game yet again.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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