WeatherFire Watch


Professor proposes cell phone app that could help firefighters track wildfires

Posted at 5:51 PM, May 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-01 21:32:37-04

Spotting wildfires before they spread? There may soon be an app for that.

A professor at UC Berkeley argues there’s technology available now to develop an app that would use satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to search for hot spots.

When it comes to large scale wildfires, CAL FIRE Riverside Battalion Chief Tim Chavez says finding the fire isn’t always as easy as it seems.

“Some of the fire we can see it and we know where it’s at but most of the fire, we have no idea where it’s at until we get an infrared over the fire later that night,” Chavez said.

Now, new satellite technology from NOAA’s GOES West satellite is helping firefighters potentially detect wildfires before they spread.

The National Weather Service is able to check the satellite imagery and then send text messages out to alert firefighters about hot spots in real time.

“So say we have a small fire break out and it gets to about 10 acres, we have something light up on that satellite image that will give us an idea that a fire is in that location from the fire temperature itself,” explained National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Eric Boldt.

UC Berkeley professor Jeff Chambers argues this technology could be used to develop an app that would allow firefighters to see fire movement and project in which direction the fire is burning.

Chambers and his students discovered this after downloading GOES satellite images from the Camp Fire and watching the fire advance.

“The information is out there and it’s in the open and it’s not a puzzle, it’s just developing an interface that’s usable on the fire ground that’s the only thing,” Chavez said.

While firefighters are often alerted to fires minutes after they happen, Chavez says having this imagery would be helpful in rural areas that are harder to access.

“The cell service in rural areas is getting better and better and better so that allows the ability of maybe getting the data down to a cell phone or computer in real time. We use a program called Scout that has some very limited satellite capabilities. Those satellites only pass a couple times a day. The difference here is this is real time, every 15 minutes getting a location of the fire’s edge,” he explained.

The National Weather Service says this satellite can also detect the intensity of lightning strikes, which they say will be helpful to firefighters as well.

While the UC Berkeley professor says this app technology can be developed, there’s no word yet on who would be taking on the project. He suggests building a satellite solely for fire detection.

CAL FIRE SLO says they already use something similar to this technology called VIIRS.