Photo: Reuters via the Sydney Morning Herald
Australia, through its hot, dry landscape is significantly pre-disposed to bushfires. In fact, South Eastern Australia is said to have some of the most bushfire prone areas in the world. Fire has been used for many thousands of years by indigenous Australians for a variety of purposes, and several of Australia’s native flora have specifically adapted to use the natural cycle of bushfires to reproduce.
During summer, it is quite normal in Australia to have multiple bushfires at any given moment across the country. However, when these bushfires threaten property and life, it becomes very important that we can detect them as quickly as possible, and have the best possible knowledge about their direction and location.
In recent years, despite improving methods of fire detection, fire mapping and fire fighting, several major Australian bushfires have killed many people and caused enormous economic damage. The black Saturday bushfires in 2009 in Victoria killed 173 people, and destroyed over 2000 houses. In 2005, 9 people were killed in a bushfire on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, and in 2003, major bushfires encroached on Australia’s capital Canberra killing 4 people and destroying around 500 homes. Going right back to 1983, many Australian’s would remember the Ash Wednesday fires that killed 75 people across South Australia and Victoria.
Bushfires are a significant Australian issue and one that benefits from the application of Space Technologies.
Prior to 2003, fire services from Around Australia relied on “eye-witness” reports from people in vehicles, fire towers, spotter planes and helicopters to provide fire detection and mapping. With 7.6 Million square kilometres of surface to cover, this system was not perfect to say the least. Particularly when assets such as spotter planes and helicopters are often grounded in heavy smoke or high winds, exactly when the fire detection and mapping need is at its highest.
Back in 2001-02 following bushfires in NSW and ACT, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO) together with CSIRO and Geoscience Australia got together to develop and implement a system to detect and monitor bushfires using satellite data. The new system was called Sentinel Hotspots.
The Sentinel Hotspots system uses data from the NASA Earth Observation Satellites Terra and Aqua with their Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument to extract the current thermal imagery across Australia allowing detection and mapping of Bushfires. It then overlays this bushfire location data on a detailed map of Australia, and provides all of this information over an easy to use internet interface.
A Screenshot from the Sentinel fire mapping website
The MODIS instrument on the Terra and Aqua satellites have a swath width of 2330km, and pass over Australia at least once per day, reporting fires within one hour of detection. The system has an accuracy of around 1.5km, and can update up to four times per day, depending on satellite passes.
The data from these satellites is downlinked to Geoscience Australia at Alice Springs, and special algorithms are used to produce the thermal images. Areas with high temperature are then identified, and fed into a spatial database which can be accessed via an internet interface, highlighting the location of each fire and other information about the fires progress.
The Sentinel Hotspots system was launched in January 15 2003, juts three days before major bushfires hit Canberra. Whilst the Sentinel Hotspots system was only intended to be a ‘pilot’ website, firefighters, media and the general public all swamped the website to check the latest information about the fires.
On the 19th of January 2003, just 4 days after the website launched, it recorded over 1.6 million hits – with CSIRO working 24 hours a day to make sure the system kept running in an operational mode. In total, the Sentinel website received 14.1 million hits in January 2003 and 3.4 million in February 2003, with a surprising 35% of traffic on the peak day coming from overseas.
The ‘pilot’ system was made into a permanent operational system in 2005, and is now hosted by Geoscience Australia here. It is also one of many different global fire detection and mapping systems such as the NASA MODIS global firemap series.
A Week of Fire locations around the World from the MODIS firemap website
The Sentinel Hotspots systems is a wonderful example of using satellite data to save people's lives, save people’s houses, and improve our ability to control major bushfires, avoiding major economic damage. Providing accurate detection and mapping of fires in near-real time, provides fire authorities with a strong management tool allowing them to best deploy resources and manage disaster response more efficiently and effectively.
On the space side, Australia is still currently reliant on NASA’s satellites to provide us with this critical information. As far as I am aware, Australia has not contributed to the design, development, launch or operation of these satellites – with the exception of providing a data download facility which allows us to also use the data free of charge.
In future, fire detection and mapping from space will become more effective in supporting operational fire management and fire fighting in real time, with increased resolution as well as a reduced re-visit time – allowing a reduction in the time between when a fire starts, and when it is reported to fire authorities. This very early reporting can allow fire-fighters to get a fire under control, before turning into a major threat to communities.
It is also an application where it would make sense for Australia to take on a leading role in the international community – whilst delivering real and immediate benefits to Australians at home. Perhaps fire detection and mapping something the upcoming Australian Space Policy will consider.