Hot spot

NASA satellite images reveal how the frontlines of fires change

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Each year, wildfires sweep across the Western United States.

The climate crisis is expected to fuel future fires too.


In 2021, the Dixie and Bootleg fires in California and Oregon have burned more than 600,000 acres — and they’re just two of more than 90 fires raging at the beginning of August.

Now, NASA has a new way to help in the fight, using the International Space Station to track wildfires and direct firefighters to where they’re needed most.

Satellites play a major role in tracking wildfires, both for people trying to avoid the blaze and firefighters working to contain it. When you’re looking at a fire the size of Los Angeles, a bird’s eye view is the only way to get the full picture.


NASA and NOAA both track wildfires through satellites, aided by planes from the U.S. Forest Service. The strengths of one type of satellite can cover the weaknesses of another and provide a fuller picture.


Geostationary satellites offer a continuous view of one area on Earth for real-time — but low-resolution — fire tracking.

Polar-orbiter satellites can pass over a fire a few times per day on their trip around the Earth, but offer much higher resolution. The highest-resolution images come from satellites that might pass a given area only once every few days.

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NASA’s Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS if you’re short on time) brings a whole new set of capabilities to wildfire containment efforts.

Situated on the ISS, ECOSTRESS measures ground temperature on Earth. In mid-July, NASA used ECOSTRESS to track a record-breaking heatwave across the Western U.S.

Using data from ECOSTRESS, first responders can now track where a wildfire is spreading and where it’s burning most intensely.

When the ISS passes over a wildfire, the hottest spots it detects indicate the fire front, where active combustion is happening and firefighters are needed most.

ECOSTRESS has imaged wildfires before — like when it tracked fires spreading across Australia in 2019.


What’s new is how it’s being put to more immediate use. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are incorporating ECOSTRESS data into a tracking tool for first responders.

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As ECOSTRESS helps first responders direct their wildfire containment efforts, it also continues to monitor droughts, heat waves, and other markers of the climate crisis.

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