U.S. wildfires have burned 4.7 million acres this year, creating potentially major public health threat from poor air quality, finds NOAA; satellites enable smoke monitoring

WASHINGTON , July 6, 2011 (press release) – From Arizona and New Mexico in the southwest to North Carolina and Georgia in the east, wildfires have scorched more than 4.7 million acres this year, according to the latest statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Standing vigil from space, NOAA’s tandem of geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites, or GOES and POES, detect and closely monitor wildfires, providing invaluable information to NOAA’s incident meteorologists and firefighters battling the blazes on the ground.

Each day, NOAA satellites provide hundreds of images of the fires, pinpointing their exact position, size and direction. At NOAA’s Satellite and Operations Facility in Suitland, Md., the data and images of the wildfires are captured by the spacecraft and distributed to users.

NOAA’s Satellite Products and Services Division creates and packages the fire and smoke information that is eventually used by NOAA’s National Weather Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local land and air quality managers to develop fire weather forecasts.

“These satellite images are frequently used to bring greater situational awareness to the incident meteorologist at the site of a fire,” says NOAA’s Mark Ruminski, the fire weather team leader. “The satellite data are especially useful because they give officials an overview of the fire situation and allow them to position fire fighting resources in the areas that need them most.”

Where there’s fire, satellites see smoke

Along with satellite coverage, part of NOAA’s operational fire and smoke program includes the Hazard Mapping System (HMS), which tracks the billowing smoke plumes the fires emit. The HMS uses NOAA and NASA satellite data to follow smoke from every wildfire burning throughout North America and highlights those producing the most smoke.

From their desks at NOAA’s World Weather Building in Camp Springs, Md., a small team of meteorologists closely watch swirling plumes on computer monitors. First, they analyze satellite imagery to spot the thickest areas of smoke, which can travel thousands of miles from the source of the fire. Once the HMS data are fed into air quality forecast models, the meteorologists are able to issue 48-hour smoke forecasts that emergency managers, fire teams and local residents depend on.

“It’s not just the flames we’re concerned about,” says Ruminski. “The smoke from these fires can be extremely harmful to air quality, which is a major threat to public health and safety.” 

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