Satellite images to aid Alaskaʼs firefighters

Release Date: 
Wednesday, June 19, 2002


Near real-time, high-resolution optical satellite images supplied by the University of Alaskaʼs Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA) will soon aid firefighters to battle flames raging in Alaska. 

In a collaborative effort to test the imagesʼ practical applications, the Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service (AFS) hopes to use the satellite images to detect wildfires, establish how a wildfire is behaving, determine where hotspots are located and the direction smoke columns are traveling.  This supplemental information will make for more informed decisions about where to most effectively direct smokejumpers, firefighting crews and aircraft.

For fires AFS has opted to let burn and not actively suppress, the images provide a tool to help monitor the wildfireʼs behavior from above.  Eventually, the satellite images may lead to a reduction in the necessary aircraft time currently used to monitor fires. 

Though AFS has utilized satellite imagery in the past, this is the first time high-resolution satellite images have been available in near real-time for their use.  In fact, the data is processed into an image at the UAF Geophysical Institute and is available for use within 40 minutes of the satelliteʼs pass over a wildfire. 

Because of Alaskaʼs high-latitude location, up to nine images of the state per day can be downloaded from two of NASAʼs polar-orbiting satellites, as compared to half as many images in Washington or any other state in the northern part of the Lower 48. 

With the addition of a Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite-receiving antenna installed on the roof of the International Arctic Research Center at UAF last August, optical sensor imaging capabilities at the university have broadened dramatically. 

“This is a satellite sensor thatʼs designed to monitor natural hazards, assess natural resources and understand climate variability associated with global climate change – three things that are on everybodyʼs mind right now,” explained Geophysical Institute Professor and GINA Project Director Buck Sharpton.

The MODIS technology used to create the images detects the energy emitted and reflected by everything on Earth, even the blues and yellows given off by plankton blooms and the reflected difference between healthy spruce needles and needles from trees affected by the spruce bark beetle.

In addition to being a tool for firefighting, these satellite images are being used for gauging bark beetle forest kill in Kenai, summer green-up assessment, ocean temperature research, and cloud related studies.  The images have the potential for many more practical applications. 

“This is the beginning of a service that can benefit every Alaska village and town,” said Geophysical Institute Director Roger Smith.


For more information, call: 
Public Relations Specialist Vicki Daniels at (907) 474-5823 or
UA Geographic Information Network of Alaska Project Director Buck Sharpton at (907) 474-6663.


NOTE: Full-color satellite images showing smoke columns are available upon request.  Call Vicki Daniels at (907) 474-5823 for details.