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Improving Wildfire Management with Satellite Technology

By Jason Jacks


John Qu

As they say in Texas, everything is bigger out west, including wildfires. But, while damaging forest fires in states such as California, Nevada, and Colorado make headlines each summer, the East is far from immune to this raging problem.

“The West has bigger and more intense fires,” says John Qu [2], director of Mason’s EastFIRE Lab [3]. “But, in the East, the population is so big. Approximately 70 percent of the population lives east of the Mississippi,” which means the potential for loss of life and property is even greater, he says.

Born out of a conference on wildfire management held at Mason in 2005, EastFIRE Lab is a conglomerate of researchers, visiting scholars, and graduate students melding their research talents to help diminish the damaging effects of wildfires on states east of the Mississippi.

Headed by Qu and housed in a small room on the third floor of the Research I building on the Fairfax Campus, the lab is part of the College of Science’s Environmental Science and Technology Center [4], which Qu also directs. The lab partners with several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA, and produces work sought by a gamut of federal, state, and local fire officials.


Satellite photo showing wildfires in Virginia and North Carolina in June 2008.

Much of the lab’s research focuses on the factors that are critical to fire risk and fire behavior, such as vegetation and moisture content. But researchers also study the effects of climate on fire potential, the emissions given off by wildfires, and what happens to an area after a fire races through it.

“We get a lot of requests for our work,” says Qu, who, also has expertise in satellite remote sensing, earth system sciences, and climate and environmental sciences.

In the United States, fires scar nearly six million acres of land annually, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. And while the vast majority of fires erupt out west, the East sees its fair share of blazes, according to Qu. In Florida and Georgia alone, nearly 6,000 wildfires sprung up in 2009, scorching 140,000 acres.

[6]As part of its research to counter this pervasive problem, the EastFIRE Lab looks skyward to see where East Coast fire hot spots may lie. The lab partners with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to access satellite data that it uses to analyze and estimate moisture and vegetation levels on the ground below.

In terms of identifying blazes, lab researchers also use satellite imagery to gain bird’s eye views of fires as they are occurring, giving firefighters on the ground more accurate location and size information. There are several satellite images on the lab’s website of a particularly large forest fire in Georgia in 2007 clearly showing the orange glow of flames.

According to Qu, though, flames are not always so easily seen from outer space, as fires in the East tend to be “smaller, cooler, less intense,” because of humidity and wetter conditions.

“Sometimes you can only see the smoke and not the fire because it burns so low to the ground,” Qu explains.

With this extensive research and access to NASA technology, one of the functions of the lab, according to Qu, is to maintain the EastFireWatch digital portal. When fires are active, the portal houses near-real-time data on wildfires as they are occurring, plus it keeps historical data and satellite images in archival form. In the future, firefighters and forest management professionals in 27 states will be able to use specialized tools in the portal to run simulated fires in areas and conditions of their choosing.

And while fire is the main focus for researchers at EastFIRE Lab, it’s not the only destructive natural phenomenon they examine. Other recent work performed at the lab included a study into new ways to use satellite data to quickly assess hurricane damage on forests and other vegetation. The process was applied to the area Hurricane Katrina ripped through in 2005, showing, as to be expected, extensive loss of vegetation.

“This would benefit government decision processes by providing objective evidence for verifying post-hurricane compensation claims,” lab researchers concluded in a 2010 article published in Agriculture and Forest Meteorology.

In addition, lab researchers are using satellites to identify areas of drought—an alarming term for forest and fire professionals as these abnormally arid conditions make for severe fire conditions.

“Drought is a big issue right now,” says Qu, eyeing a satellite image of the southeastern United States on his computer screen.

Sidebar: Keeping Watch on the Earth

Want proof that two of the world’s biggest countries can work together for the betterment of the global environment? Then look no further than a small lab on the third floor of Mason’s Research I Building.

Housed there is the Environmental Science and Technology Center [4](ESTC), a joint venture between Mason and China, where scientists and students are examining ways to better monitor how the Earth is being affected by environmental and climate forces.

“The center offers the opportunity to mix researchers from various cultural backgrounds and give them a high-level approach with an international vision, provide in-depth knowledge in the interdisciplinary field of environmental and climate research, and teach them the skills, tools, and methodologies to support a global approach for solving complex problems,” said Mason provost Peter Stearns in fall 2008, when the center was formally created.

Each year, according to ESTC Director John Qu, researchers and students from China travel regularly to Mason to learn about using remote sensing techniques to monitor drought conditions, forest disturbances, flood potential, and smoke and dust aerosols in the air. “The best students come here,” Qu points out. Conversely, Mason researchers visit China annually to study with scholars there.

The center, which counts the EastFIRE Laboratory as one of its partners, also hosts workshops and forums, where environmental and climate researchers from around the world come together to discuss their latest research. In April, the center will host a drought-monitoring forum.

While China remains an important partner, the center is expanding its partnerships to other countries, including South Korea and European nations. In July, it will host a workshop for several African countries.

For an issue as important as the environment, Qu stresses, “Globalization is critical to the center.”