The three of us huddled around a computer screen, touring the Western U.S. through imagery from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-16 satellite. We were watching active wildfires in real-time. The fires showed black, burned ground, sometimes we could see the fire smoke, and they had a twinkling effect, an artifact of the computer. Launched last November, this weather satellite is proving its worth in finding and tracking wildfires.
Clair Ketchum and Jeremy Michael are meteorologists in the Elko Forecast Office. When I last spoke with them in May, they were hopeful these satellite views could be used to spot wildfires while the fires are still small.
So I asked them if they been able to spot a wildfire before anyone else. Had they alerted Fire Dispatch? They spotted the Quinn fire start near McDermitt and alerted dispatch at about the same time others reported this fire. They showed me recorded video of the thunderstorm that spawned the Snowstorm and Cornucopia fires north of Battle Mountain.
The satellite view clearly showed the lightning strikes as the storm moved through, and showed three fires start up. One fire went out and the other two blossomed into the Snowstorm and Cornucopia fires. They called in those fires also, again about at the same time as others reported them. In the future, even if the Weather Service does not call in a fire first, Clair and Jeremy feel they can provide backup verification of the fire.
Although the recent Oil Well fire was visible outside the Weather Service windows as it roared toward White Rock and Osino, Clair said all eyes were glued to computer screens in the room. They watched the fire advance in real-time, with only a 90-second delay. Different data channels offered them different views of the fire. They were able to help fire crews by alerting them to a wind shift along the northern fire edge.
One question in May had been how small of a fire could be spotted. They watched a fire in Paradise Valley that topped out at 190 acres. Although they did not know the size at the time, they could see it as a smaller size. They can probably spot the smoke plume from a large building fire but the satellite is so new that many of these questions still need time to work out.
They had some luck while spotting the Snowstorm fire. The sky was clear soon after the thunderstorm moved through so no clouds blocked the beginning fires. A larger fire does show through the clouds. Some objects can put out enough heat to look like a fire, such as dry lake beds, mine sites and solar collection fields.
The satellite not only helps in spotting wildfires but aids the fire crews during a fire. The Weather Service has alerted crews to approaching storms not visible to crews and wind shifts that could put crews in danger. After a fire, Weather Service personnel also provide a service by watching burned areas as storms approach, areas like the Oil Well burn. They can alert authorities of approaching rain, since rain on burned ground can quickly run off as debris flows and flood nearby areas.
For the first time, the GEOS-16 satellite offers the ability to watch processes in real-time. Clair and Jeremy showed me recorded video of a dust cloud kicked up by strong winds near Ely, something the old GEOS-13 satellite could not have seen. Now they can alert nearby airports of such advancing dangers.
Much work remains to be done concerning this new satellite, but the GEOS-16 is proving itself as one more valuable aid in fighting wildfires.