California Wildfires: How Is NASA Using Satellites to Fight Fires From Outer Space?

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 17, 2013 12:55 PM EDT

California wildfires
Firefighters have been working to contain California wildfires for three days. The blaze started on Wednesday afternoon and has spread to the counties of Los Angeles, Kern and Ventura. (Photo: Reuters / Patrick T. Fallon)

Firefighters in California continued to battle flames today, attempting to contain a wildfire that has been raging for three days north of Los Angeles.

The California wildfire broke out early Wednesday afternoon and has spread to three counties: Los Angeles, Kern and Ventura. When the fire broke out on Wednesday, temperatures were in the 80s. Temperatures have fallen into the 60s since then, where they're expected to hold through the weekend, but 20 mph winds have helped to keep the six-square-mile fire alive.

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"It's definitely gusty, but we're lucky, the winds are blowing away from homes," Kern County Fire Department spokesman Corey Wilford said. "It would be better if we didn't have winds at all though."

Another problem in containing the blaze is the terrain, which is rocky and hard-to-reach. The upside of the fire winding its way through rocky terrain is that the area is sparsely populated.

After three days of fighting the flames, officials announced that as of early this morning, the fire was 35 percent contained. Officials are not sure of the cause of the fire, which is under investigation.

California firefighters have recently had an interesting ally in their annual war on wildfires: NASA.

While battling the blaze on the ground, firefighters are also getting information from 400 miles above the Earth. Satellite images from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tell firefighters where dry vegetation is most prevalent. Those areas are most susceptible to wildfires.  

Fire agencies have used such sateliite images for years, but the readings used to take up to two weeks. Now, firefighters can see them immediately.

"This is going to be good. We're excited about it," LA County Fire Assistant Chief Frank Vidales said. "This satellite information will give us real-time information on fire danger."

Son Nghiem, the principal investigator of the NASA project, said that within minutes, "the data can be turned into a kind of work product that can be directly used by fire agencies."

This data should be helpful to fire departments during what promises to be a particularly bad fire season for Southern California. During the regions wettest months, January, February and March, the region saw abnormally low rainfalls, leading to excessively dry conditions.

To track California wildfires, check out Google Maps.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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