Berkeley Scientist Says Early Warning App For Wildfires Is Very Doable

A University of California, Berkeley geography professor believes we have the technology at hand right now to build an early warning system that would allow people to escape wildfires and help firefighters respond more quickly.

Professor Jeff Chambers said a weather satellite, GOES 17, is photographing California every few minutes and can provide nearly real-time data on the origin and spread of a wildfire using infrared technology. He is convinced that it is possible to get that information into the hands of people in areas at risk of wildfire via their smart phone or other devices.

"You could build today a fire warning app that would wake you up in the event of a nearby fire and help you decide if you need to flee," said Chambers. "You could create an algorithm that would bring in all the data, detect the fire, calculate the direction it is moving and project what the fire is burning toward, maybe 30 minutes or an hour or two out. There is nothing to inhibit us from building that now."

Chambers worked with several graduate students to develop an animated view of the Camp Fire, which raced through and all but completely destroyed the town of Paradise, California, last last year. Using images downloaded from the satellite they were able reconstruct the spread of the flames from the time they first erupted through the following four hours.

"At the time of the Camp Fire, we hadn't yet built the tools to quickly synthesize all these data streams into a single application, but we’re there now," Chambers claimed. He added that this kind of technology might not help people living close to the ignition point of a wildfire, but it could provide fire and law enforcement officials a headstart on their response and allow for much earlier and faster evacuations of homes farther away from the flames.

While GOES 17 and other satellites can be used to provide data for an early warning app, Chambers would like to see a dedicated wildfire detection satellite. That satellite could also be used to gather data on the impacts of drought, help optimize agricultural uses of land, and more.

UC Berkeley officials said they suggested putting a satellite for that kind of observation work into orbit five years ago. The estimated cost at that time was thought to be over $200 million.

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