Oakland Hills Fire Storm: Remote Sensing and Emergency Management

Key Investigator: James A. Brass

On October 20, 1991, a small brush fire started in the hills above Oakland, California. Fanned by high winds, unseasonably high temperatures and low humidity, the fire spread rapidly, burning nearly three square miles of affluent neighborhoods within the wooded hillsides. When it was over, the Oakland Hills Fire was labelled the worst urban disaster in U.S. history. The conflagration caused an estimated $2 billion in damage, including the loss of homes, businesses and lives.

As the fire progressed, numerous agencies were summoned to control it. An immediate and major problem was fire reconnaissance. Dense black smoke covered much of the area, masking fire lines and spot fires. Because of the fire's intensity and the uneven terrain, the construction of a control line was extremely difficult. With its expertise in ecosystem research, flight operations and engineering, NASA-Ames has had extensive experience in using aircraft data to map fires, most notably, the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 . At the request of other federal, state and local agencies, NASA-Ames deployed the C-130 and ER-2 aircraft loaded with a full complement of remote sensing systems to detect and monitor the fire.

NASA-Ames' multi-disciplinary team gathered sufficient information to enable fire managers at the incident command center to see graphically the extent of the fire, where the fire was moving and the locations of hot spot development. The image shown here is an example of one of the thermal infrared images used to map existing fires (red) and hot spots (yellow and white). The real-time scanner data and aerial photos collected after the fire provided the only synoptic look of the fire for damage assessment and documentation of fire behavior. Thus, the airborne technology used in the Oakland Hills Fire provided invaluable assistance to the many federal, state and local agencies involved in controlling the firestorm.

MAP: California
COLLABORATORS: Medium Altitude Mission Branch and High Altitude Mission Branch, NASA/Ames Research Center; ATAC; Terra Mar Resource Information Services; California Department of Forestry; Oakland Fire Department.

To return to the SG Research Summaries Menu click here.