Fire Control and Fire Impact: The Yellowstone Experience

In the continental United States, 130,000 wildland fires occur every year. These fires burn approximately ten million hectares and release approximately 25 million metric tons of particles into the atmosphere annually. In addition to the obvious scar on the landscape, the trace gases generated by wildland fire contributes to global warming and affect ecosystem productivity.


Traditionally, it has been difficult to obtain reliable information from the ground or from the air on fire intensity, size, location and production of volatile materials because of smoke or inaccessible terrain. Airborne remote sensing techniques offer significant advantages over conventional fire monitoring techniques due to the potential area of coverage, the ability to penetrate smoke with certain sensors and the technology to relay imagery electronically over long distances to where it's needed. These advantages were demonstrated during the massive wildfires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988. At the request of the National Park Service and the U. S. Forest Service, aircraft from NASA Ames Research Center with thermal infrared imagers flew over the fires and relayed images of burned areas and movement of the fire front to local receiving stations. Examples of the imagery obtained are shown in the figures. Figure 1 is an image in the visible part of the spectrum in which only smoke can be seen. Figure 2 was taken from the same aircraft simultaneously, by scanning in the thermal infrared part of the spectrum. the exact location of the fire fronts (white and yellow) and the super heated soils (red and orange) are apparent. This type of imagery provided fire fighters the best picture of the fire during their control efforts.


In addition to serving a national need, the Yellowstone missions complemented on-going efforts at Ames to understand the environmental impact of fires. Data acquired in 1988 is being combined with data obtained on the ground and analyzed to determine fire intensity, rate of spread, and degree of severity.


Investigator: James A. Brass