NASA Researchers Study Potential Wildfire-related Erosion on L.A. Hillsides

NASA Researchers Study Potential Wildfire-related Erosion on L.A. Hillsides

19 January 2010

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USA — Residents in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles are anticipating possible landslides and flooding with the coming of winter’s wet weather and little to no brush to hold the soil back. Areas burned by forest and brush fires, particularly the massive Station Fire that scorched some 165,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest last August and September, are particularly susceptible to landslides. The loss of vegetation from fires means that heavy rains can more easily carry water and debris down hillsides.NASA’s Earth Sciences Division and Applied Sciences Program are creating and evolving tools to improve understanding of, and wherever necessary, mitigate the effects of wildfires, to include post-burn assessments of affected areas. They are doing this through a combination of instruments on satellites, flight missions and models all managed under the Wildfire Research and Applications Partnership (WRAP).

WRAP is a unique program that teams NASA with the US Forest Service (USFS) to better isolate fire sources, identify hot spots and better distribute resources to problem areas. Past years have seen a rise in both the number and intensity of fires, creating a challenging operational environment. Limited numbers of fire fighters, equipment, and other resources, require precise and accurate information, which is where NASA has been able to assist.

NASA launched an unmanned aircraft from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles last November to fly over areas burned previously by the Piute Fire in Kern County and the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest, two heavily affected areas. The plane, a General Atomics Predator B modified for civil use, is named Ikhana, a Choctaw word meaning intelligence. Ikhana is outfitted with a thermal infrared scanner developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Jose, Calif., that measures heat coming off of fires. That data is then converted to images and sent back to the ground via satellite. It helps firefighters better react to conditions on the ground and see through plumes of smoke that sometimes measure 30,000 to 40,000 feet high.”A fire manager on a wildfire, who doesn’t know where his fire is going, can use Ikhana and its imaging capabilities to ascertain where the fire is, how fast it’s moving,” noted principal investigator Vince Ambrosia at NASA Ames. “Does he have any resources or personnel that might be in danger? We can also see which areas have been hardest hit after fires, which helps state officials plans for floods and landslides later in the season.”

Once the images are collected onboard Ikhana, they are transmitted through a communications satellite to NASA Ames where the imagery is superimposed over ground maps in Google Earth to better visualize the location and scope of the fires.

From a ground control center at NASA Dryden, NASA pilots command Ikhana in close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration, which allows the aircraft to fly within the national airspace while maintaining safe separation from other aircraft. The imagery is then transmitted to the Multi-Agency Coordination Center in Redding, Calif., and the USFS State Operations Center in Sacramento, which distributes the images to fire mangers in the field. All of this is accomplished within minutes, giving decision makers near real-time information.”This project is about delivering the right information, to the right people, at the right time,” said Ambrosia. “It’s also about ensuring that the ever-evolving capabilities developing from the NASA science community be fully exploited and matured for applications that provide societal benefit.”

Wildfires continue to be of great interest to NASA Earth scientists for several reasons: they create land cover change, playing a key role in ecosystem development; they are significant sources of atmospheric pollution and air quality decline; and finally, fire is a critical process in the global carbon cycle.

NASA is also supporting several more initiatives to assist in fire management, including a feasibility study on using satellite data to estimate fuel loads (biomass and forest undergrowth), utilizing various remote sensing data to help forest managers with the tools to effectively monitor and manage wildfire fuel buildup. Knowing where wildfire fuel is located and how much there is can help fire mangers predict where fires will spread to and how intense they will be.

“Both projects will continue to contribute to our evolving understanding of wildfires,” says Andrea Donnellan, NASA’s program manager of the Applied Sciences Natural Disasters program. “The goal of the Applied Sciences Natural Disasters Program is to improve NASA’s capabilities in the area of space and airborne platforms and observations, higher level data products, and modeling and analysis to improve forecasting, mitigation, and response to natural disasters.”In 2008, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the WRAP project.

“NASA’s Ikhana is one more incredible tool that we are able to use this year to bring real-time pictures and data to fire commanders, even when our other aircraft are unable to fly,” said Schwarzenegger. “The federal government has been an active partner in helping California fight fires, and NASA’s assistance is one more example of that cooperation.”

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