Environment & Science

NASA wants to battle SoCal wildfires by predicting where they start

File: An image captured by NASA's Terra satellite shows several fires giving off small plumes of smoke October 21, 2007.
File: An image captured by NASA's Terra satellite shows several fires giving off small plumes of smoke October 21, 2007.
NASA/Getty Images

A soil moisture monitoring system being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory hopes to make it easier to predict when and where wildfires will erupt in Southern California and elsewhere.

The new tool, called the Fire Danger Assessment System (F-DAS), computes the likelihood of wildfires in fire-prone regions through satellite measurements of moisture in soil.

Once F-DAS compares moisture levels in a specific region to real-time rain patterns and temperatures, it can compute the probability of a wildfire eruption, according to John Reager, the project’s lead scientist.

The technology was developed over a two-year study funded by NASA. Reager told KPCC he hopes to have F-DAS up and running and available to the public by next May, before the 2018 fire season.

By identifying specific swaths of land with higher probabilities of fires, authorities with the US Forest Service and residents can be better prepared for fires than they are now, he said.  

“Putting the right resources in the right places early in the season gives the chance for the entire firefighting community to have a leg up on fires and do it in the most efficient way possible,” he said.

In 2015, Reager and scientists at NASA looked at the Forest Service’s seasonal prediction maps. But they found they were hand-drawn and weren't very detailed, Reager said.

“They were just kind of blotches of red areas and green areas that were supposed to have more fires than usual or less fires that usual,” he said. 

Preliminary maps from JPL's F-DAS system study show a more detailed projection of where wildfires are likely to occur. The US Forest Service's map is shown above right. JPL's maps are shown bottom left and right.
Preliminary maps from JPL's F-DAS system study show a more detailed projection of where wildfires are likely to occur. The US Forest Service's map is shown above right. JPL's maps are shown bottom left and right.
NASA/JPL

F-DAS' fire predictions will use grids made up of individual 15-square-mile quadrants. Each quadrant's soil moisture levels will be measured and given a wildfire probably rating, he said. 

NASA has an "abundance" of hydrology data mostly collected by the GRACE, SMAP and Aqua satellites orbiting the Earth, Reager said. That data will become the primary source of information for F-DAS's probability ratings.

The US Forest Service currently issues daily and weekly fire forecasts on its website through the National Interagency Fire Center. Reager said NASA plans to partner with the service to deploy fire trucks, helicopters and firefighters more strategically.