UC Berkeley physicist, team get $1.5M grant to improve wildfire spotting in skies, space

A Cal Fire DC-10 Air Tanker performs a flyover prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway on March 16, 2019 in Fontana, California.
A Cal Fire DC-10 Air Tanker performs a flyover prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway on March 16, 2019 in Fontana, California. Photo credit Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Could California wildfire detection get a boost from the skies and, ultimately, space?

One research team is endeavoring to find out.

Carl Pennypacker, a physicist at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, and Tim Ball, the founder of Fireball Information Technologies, will utilize a $1.5 million grant to equip planes with improved infrared detectors to better learn how fires spread.

The pair then hopes to equip satellites with similar technology within four years.

"We plan to build a system that really delivers a better, more detailed spatial characterization of fires to firefighters in real time," Ball told the university’s news website in a story published Wednesday. "This will also improve our predictive models to a degree that improves firefighter safety and the tactical and strategic decision making on the ground."

Using real-time infrared data and machine-learning algorithms that can map hot spots, the duo said the technology can map a fire's behavior within 20 minutes. The detectors will also measure flame length and geometry.

Combined with measuring wind speed and humidity, the researchers are confident the technology could then model a fire’s direction and rate of spread, providing firefighters with vital information as wildfires become more damaging and destructive.

Currently, CAL FIRE largely relies on U.S. Forest Service planes that are flown once every night. Standard detectors are unable to track active fires, but Pennypacker and Ball's can handle the large amount of radiation necessary to do so.

Pennypacker said equipped satellites could scan the Western U.S. multiple times per minute.

"One study estimated that if you can just discover and get to a fire earlier, you would save $8 billion dollars over a decade," Pennypacker said, citing research from Australian National University. "If firefighters could be alerted to a fire within 10 minutes – if they knew where it was and could get to it, even without any heroic measures, like airborne tankers on constant alert – that saves a lot of money and lives."

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded researchers the grant last November. Pennypacker, Ball and engineers from the Space Sciences Laboratory worked together to design and build the detectors.