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Remote Sensors on Earth, Air, Water to Alert Authorities of Firefighting

More than 100 cameras provide a view of 60 percent of the company's service area in Southern and Central California

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firefighting, remote sensors
Burned trees surround a destroyed home leaving only the fireplace in Point Dume in Malibu, California, Nov. 11, 2018. VOA

Wildfires are often discovered by aircraft pilots, drivers or spotters in observation towers. Increasingly, remote sensors — on the ground, in the air and on board satellites — are alerting authorities when fires break out, and experts say technology will increasingly be a part of the future of firefighting.

A blaze that raged last August in a canyon near Los Angeles threatened vital communications links. Remote cameras gave firefighters crucial information to save the installations, said Troy Whitman of Southern California Edison, an electric utility company.

Whitman serves as a liaison with firefighting agencies, and he shares information from a new camera network that Edison installed throughout much of its service area. Those 13 million hectares are challenging, he said, “mountains, deserts, very remote areas where fires may not be detected for minutes, sometimes even days in the forest if it’s a lightning strike.”

firefighting, remote sensors
Spotting fires from the Earth, Air and Space. VOA

Electronic lookouts

More than 100 cameras provide a view of 60 percent of the company’s service area in Southern and Central California. More cameras are on their way, all monitored in an operations center in suburban Los Angeles, where remote spotters watch computer monitors and meteorologists track weather data from remote sensing stations.

Fires up and down the U.S. West Coast are getting fiercer, and 10 of California’s 20 most destructive blazes have occurred since 2015. A California report last month, “Wildfires and Climate Change,” said the state’s fire season has become nearly year-round, and one-quarter of the California’s population lives in fire-prone areas.

“Climate is changing,” said Brian Chen, who manages Edison’s wildfire mitigation efforts. “We’ve had many years of drought leading up to this, which has caused millions of trees across the state to die or be weakened because of disease,” he added. “We’ve also had a history of fire suppression policy, which has not kept our forests healthy,” he said.

More residents are also living closer to wilderness areas, in places like Paradise, a once idyllic northern California town destroyed by wildfire in November. At least 85 people died and 14,000 homes were destroyed by the so-called Camp Fire, which investigators announced Wednesday was sparked by the transmission lines of another utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.

At least half of the state’s most destructive 20 fires have been caused by power lines or electrical equipment, and spread because they started in isolated areas that were difficult for firefighters to reach. California fire officials say electrical mishaps account for a smaller proportion of all wildfires, and blame others on careless debris burning, out-of-control campfires, arson or smoking.

Southern California Edison is upgrading its infrastructure, replacing bare transmission lines with insulated cables. Pacific Gas and Electric also plans to install new cameras and weather stations. Both companies face lawsuits over recent wildfires, and Pacific Gas and Electric filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions of dollars in claims.

Destructive fires are also tracked by NASA, the U.S. space agency, which also monitors the health of our planet using “aircraft observations … from manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft,” said Vince Ambrosia of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He says the main focus today, however, is on satellite data retrieved by NASA and its partners, including the European Space Agency, and shared with the public and global firefighters. The information helps before, during and after a wildfire.

“We can do active fire detection,” said Natasha Stavros of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We can also do observations of the type of vegetation that’s there,” she said, assessing moisture content and how readily vegetation will burn.

firefighting, remote sensors
FILE – Homes leveled by the Camp Fire line Valley Ridge Drive in Paradise, Calif., Dec. 3, 2018. VOA

She says an instrument called GEDI has been sent to the International Space Station to measure levels of biomass, the trees and brush that provide fuel for fires, by monitoring how forests store and release carbon. Other satellites track the height of flames and the spread of smoke and other pollutants.

ALSO READ: Scientists Find New Ways of Tracking Objects by Combining DNA of Dust Particles

Airborne and space-based sensors provide real-time data, and NASA and its partner agencies have built a “long-term collection library … going back to the 1980s to look at transitioning stages of wildfires throughout our last 50 years or so,” Ambrosia said.

Experts say that fire is part of nature’s ecosystem, but fire season is getting longer and fires more intense, and remote sensing helps firefighters deal with the challenge. The last month’s California report on wildfires recommends increased use of advanced imaging from the air and space, artificial intelligence to enhance data analysis, and a more comprehensive approach to fire prevention and response. (VOA)

Next Story

Disasters Will Get Worse: U.S. Climate Report

Last year, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which had been signed by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change.

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Disasters
A firefighter searches for human remains in a trailer park destroyed in the Camp Fire, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, in Paradise, California. VOA

A U.S. government report says the impacts of climate change, including powerful storms, droughts and wildfires, are worsening in the United States.

The report, written with the help of more than a dozen U.S. government agencies and departments, frequently contradicts the statements and policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The congressionally mandated report was quietly issued Friday during a holiday weekend. The White House later dismissed the report as inaccurate, according to a Reuters report.

climate change, disasters
People clean up their house that was destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach. VOA

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told Reuters Friday the report was “largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that…there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population.”

The National Climate Assessment, totaling more than 1,000 pages, warned of more powerful and longer weather disasters triggered at least, in part, by global warming.

It said such weather disasters are becoming more commonplace around the country and warned that without aggressive action they could become much worse.

Drought, Climate change, disasters
A farmer stands on cracked earth that three weeks earlier created the bottom of a reservoir on his farm, in Groot Marico, South Africa. VOA

While the report avoids policy recommendations, it said humans must take measures to stop future weather disasters “to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”

“Future risks from climate change depend primarily on decisions made today,” the report said.

It predicted that climate change will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century if no efforts are made to curb its effects and said global warming would disproportionately hurt the poor.

This year’s National Climate Assessment is the fourth time the U.S. government has issued a comprehensive look at climate change and is the first assessment to take place during the Trump administration. The last report came in 2014.

Hurricane, climate change, disasters
Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey overflow from Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston, Texas, VOA

11 Thirteen government departments and agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), were part of a committee of more than 300 researchers who compiled the assessment.

Several people involved in the report told The Washington Post that its release originally had been planned for early December. However, they said after a behind-the-scenes debate about when to make it public, administration officials settled on the Friday after Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the slowest news days of the year.

During a press conference Friday, authors of the report said there had been “no external interference” in the assessment. Report director David Reidmiller said questions about the timing of the release were “relevant,” but said the contents of the report were more important.

Climate Change, Trump, disasters
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. VOA

The Trump administration has rolled back several environmental regulations put in place during former President Barack Obama’s administration and has promoted the production of fossil fuels.

Also Read: Climate Change To Get Worse In The Future: Study

Last year, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which had been signed by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change. He argued the agreement would hurt the U.S. economy and said there is little evidence in its environmental benefit.

Trump, as well as several members of his Cabinet, have also cast doubt on the science of climate change, saying the causes of global warming are not yet settled.

Friday’s report cites other climate studies, which say that humans have caused more than 90 percent of the current global warming. (VOA)