Alaskan-developed satellite technology helps fire managers in COVID-19 era

 Courtesy Christine Waigl, UAF
Courtesy Christine Waigl, UAF (KTUU)
Published: Jun. 12, 2020 at 5:26 PM AKDT
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COVID-19 is impacting the way land managers prepare for and respond to wildfires, but satellite technology developed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is helping provide data to help managers make informed decisions.

Satellites have played an increasingly important role for fire response nationwide in recent years, but the programs used have not always been the most applicable for the conditions in Alaska.

"We had big fires in 2012. There was one just outside of Fairbanks in the military zone south of the Tanana River, and I was looking at remote sensing data and familiarizing myself with this field and their fire detection data that we get from the satellite," Chris Waigl, a postdoctoral fellow at UAF, said. "The sensor kept telling us there was no fire, but we could see it."

That experience helped spur Waigl into developing an Alaska-oriented satellite program that can detect the type of low burning fires in duff layers the conventional satellite programs could not detect.

By working collaboratively with fire managers, Waigl and her team have been able to develop programs that take data from satellites and puts it into a form that can be easily understood and useful for decision making.

This spring, with COVID-19 disrupting normal preparations for fire season, a new satellite program helped collect data the fire service typically relies on regional spotters for.

Using satellite information fire managers knew exactly when and where snow melted across the state.

In active fire situations, the satellite technology can also help provide more information to both the public and fire managers, such as the temperature across a burn area.

"I want to get to the point where I could tell you the story of a wildfire day by day, or even hour by hour, what carbon is emitted," Waigl said. "And then in the longer term too, what will be the impact of it in the long term. There is a big story there that we have only started scratching the surface of."

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