Fighting fires with technology

Fighting fires with technology

By Jacqueline Maley

A satellite system developed by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia will be used for the detection and monitoring of serious bushfire blazes in the future.

Launched last Wednesday, 15th January, the Sentinel Hotspots system arrived just in time to be used in the devastating Canberra bushfires which raged through the capital on the weekend.

Using information from NASA satellites, the Sentinel system creates maps monitoring Australia's surface temperature and showing bushfire hotspots as they develop and shift location. Updated four times daily, the information is a great help to emergency services in their logistic and strategic planning.

Received in Alice Springs by GeoScience and sent to the main mapping computer at the CSIRO in Canberra, the information gives a broad regional view of the extent and degree of bushfires across large tracts of land. Using a satellite that orbits the earth at about 750km, the system has an accuracy of 1-1.5km.

Although useful to emergency services everywhere, the Sentinel system is specifically designed to provide information on remote areas, where there is no access to the additional information that aids fire-fighting forces. Grass fires, forest fires and bush fires, started for example by a lightening strike in a distant location, can all be detected using the Sentinel system.

Dr Alex Held, the Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO's Land and Water department, said Sentinel was used as part of the planning in Canberra's bushfire emergency centres over the weekend, along with "on the ground" information.

Despite criticism that responses to the fires were inadequate, Dr Held is adamant that everything possible was done to prevent the fires spreading. "The sheer size of the storm was just too large", he said.

Although the system currently has no predictive capabilities, in the future it may, according to Dr Held. "We would combine technologies that look at wind directions and weather conditions using computer models to simulate weather environments." In this way the path of destruction could be predicted and some damage averted.

Dr Held believes this is "only the beginning" of the Sentinel system's potential capabilities. In the future it may be useful not only for bushfires, but also for tracking oil spills and flooding areas and to locate large blooms of toxic algae off the coast: "all those things which need near real-time satellite information and which require emergency responses."

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