Taking a Higher View

Using Airborne Imaging to Predict and Research Wildfires

For years, Indy Burke, professor of forest sciences and one of a handful of University Distinguished Teaching Scholars, has concentrated her research on the communities of life found below ground in the shortgrass steppe of the Great Plains.

Recently, she's been going into space with a different kind of research.

Burke and her team are launching new research to develop and evaluate data generated from satellites and other airborne systems to predict and manage wildfire risk in the Rocky Mountain West. In addition, the team hopes to evaluate how fire contributes to the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

Considering the catastrophic forest fires that have swept through Colorado and the West this summer and in past years, the research may help reduce the impact of wildfires, which have affected property and water supplies as well as the forest landscape.

Burke and her colleagues hope to be able to predict the behavior and intensity of fires to help agencies and other organizations minimize wildfire risks with fuel treatments and prescribed fires. In addition to funding from the Agricultural Experiment Station for field research, a three-year grant from NASA is being used for imaging technology and technical support staff.

A co-principal investigator is Merrill Kaufmann, affiliate professor of fire ecology at Colorado State and research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service. Kaufmann has long-term data sets of Cheesman Reservoir, another key study area for the team, and is contributing other valuable input for the research project.

"The goal is to use satellite or airborne imagery to find out the location and types of forest fuels wood that is likely to burn before fire occurs," Burke says. "We've already gathered a lot of information to analyze. We had several overflights of the Hayman Fire area before the burn and several afterward, and we'll continue to gather data using many remote-sensing systems, including one called lidar."

Lidar is an acronym that stands for Light Detection and Ranging. Similar to radar, lidar systems transmit and receive electromagnetic radiation, but use laser (light) rather than radio waves.

Graduate student Jason Stoker, who is in the forest sciences program, has made enormous progress in proving that the technology works for assessing trees in studies made before the Hayman Fire happened, Burke says. She also gives credit to another graduate student and valued member of the team, Sonia Hall, who is in the University's ecology program.

"Now we can attempt to answer the questions: Could we have predicted where the (Hayman) fire was going to go and how it would have burned? What kind of information are we missing? What data do we need to predict fire behavior?" says Hall.

The team will couple several types of imagery with another high-tech system called FARSITE, a computer program that simulates the spread and behavior of fires under conditions of variable terrain, fuels, and weather. While FARSITE often is used on a real-time basis during fire suppression activities, the team will couple remotely sensed data with FARSITE modeling on landscapes before prescribed burns and compare the output to experimental results.

"One key question is: How much carbon is lost after a fire and put into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide?" Burke says. "We want to find out whether the same remote sensing data sources can be used to quantify the carbon consequences of wildfires and wildfire suppression.

"That part of the research speaks to the broader science and global-scale management question of the role of fire in greenhouse gas concentrations, like CO2. Fuel is made of carbon stored on the earth's surface three times as much carbon is found in vegetation and soil as is found in the atmosphere. And while it's stored on the surface as fuels, once that fuel is burned, the carbon in it is carried aloft as carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas."

Burke's team includes Thomas Vonder Haar, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science and co-principal investigator on the NASA grant and on the Agricultural Experiment Station project.

"Tom has been on the leading edge of remote-sensing technology for his entire career," Burke says. "It's an exciting time to be in this area of research and to share discoveries with team members."