Satellite firefighters in action this summer

Game Creek fire
Early stages of Game Creek fire
2 August 2001

As resin-loaded pine trees explode into flame hundreds of kilometres into the primal Canadian forest, high-tech firefighters are turning to the latest in satellite technology this summer to battle these ferocious blazes. Now the mopping-up operation is under way, REMSAT, an ESA-supported satellite ground station which supplies up-to-the-minute fire mapping and logistics support, is clearly a vital part of the firefighters arsenal.

160 kilometres up a muddy, one-track logging road in British Columbia, REMSAT was deployed to aid 180 fire-fighters battling two ‘project fires’ - those that require a full incident management team, with logistical and administrative support, camp facilities for crews and much more. The REMSAT system is housed in a container, carried by a truck or large helicopter to within sniffing distance of a fire, deploying a 1.2 m satellite dish aerial, which has a 2 Mb receiving data rate (96 Kb transmitting rate) communicating through the ANIKE-1 geostationary satellite.

"We had no access to any type of non-satellite based telephone service," explains Steve Newton, Manager of the Lillooet Fire Zone for Canada’s Kamloops Fire Centre. "FM Radio for the area also had severe limitations and had to be supplemented with local temporary repeaters set up exclusively for this project. The Sullivan Creek fire was approximately 725 hectares, caused by lightning. The Game Creek fire covered about 412 hectares and the suspected cause is from industrial activities."

Landsat Sullivan fire
Landsat image with Sullivan fire boundary

"The fires were both located in extremely rugged and steep terrain, and most of the area within and around the fire perimeters was only accessible by helicopter,” explains Newton. “As if that wasn’t enough,” he continues, "the valley where the fires were situated is also used for the relocation of grizzly bears who are causing problems with humans. There were magnificent glaciers cascading out from between surrounding mountain ranges. And on a daily basis, the crews were working on slopes in excess of 100%."

"Some of the REMSAT systems equipment was damaged on the drive in but in a manner that would shock most engineers, we were able to rebuild it with a roll of duct tape. Because of the extreme topography in the area, we had some initial concerns about being able to see the satellite but they proved unfounded once on site." Newton adds.

“Firefighters were quick to appreciate the value of REMSAT,” he explains. "They were like children in a candy store when the IKONOS imagery arrived via the downlink to the field," comments Newton. "The Incident Management Team and other operations personnel were amazed at our ability to deliver such high quality one metre resolution imagery to the middle of nowhere. When the initial resource request came in for the REMSAT unit, we put in a request for the most recent satellite imagery of the area available on a Friday morning. IKONOS was able to task their satellite the following morning, Saturday, and by Sunday night we had the final processed product on our laptop in the field."

Game Creek fire
IKONOS imagery of Game Creek fire

"Once the satellite link was established," Newton continues, "we were able to download archived satellite imagery and GIS data sets almost immediately to begin our mapping. We then took the Incident Management Team's hand drawn maps and digitized a preliminary perimeter for each fire. The next day we walked and flew the perimeters and control lines and generated some GPS data sets, which gave us a more accurate picture of what was out there. What was absolutely amazing, however, was when the one metre imagery arrived from the IKONOS people. We were able to zoom in to a level such that hand-cut control breaks less than one metre in width and the large boxes that deployed fire hose was packaged in were recognisable. When the GPS satellite land topology was overlaid on the one metre imagery, I was able to zoom in and edit the line geometries by hand so that they were exact."

The REMSAT system provided telephone and fax support functions for the Incident Management Team. Reliable communications are critical to managing any emergency incident, especially to the administrative, planning, logistical, and line operations functions. High speed internet access provided by the REMSAT system proved invaluable to the Incident Commander, as well as the Fire Behaviour Specialist because they were able to access several online weather sites containing such tools as near real-time satellite imagery, 500 millibar charts and long range forecasting models. E-mail with digital photo attachments was used to keep senior managers regularly updated on daily activities.

"Information management in forest fire and other emergency incident types will not be the same in British Columbia after this summer,” says Newton. "This REMSAT system definitely filled an operational void that has existed for far too long."

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