NOAA 2002-075
Contact: Pat Viets
NOAA News Releases 2002
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Crews battling the Colorado wildfires are getting some help from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites flying some 23,000 miles above the equator and from specially trained incident meteorologists who have joined the teams near the front lines of the blaze battle. NOAA is an agency of the Commerce Department.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite (POES) systems of NOAA's Satellite Service are giving fire managers and state officials high resolution information of fire locations that cuts through the smoke and haze. These NOAA images that track the progress and movement of the fires are available on the NOAA Web site.

The latest development in NOAA's fire detecting from space is Wildfire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm now being used aboard the agency's two geostationary satellites (GOES 8 and 10). The system generates fire data for Colorado and the entire Western hemisphere every 30 minutes. Images in map form are typically available for operational use within 90 minutes.

NOAA's new satellite fire detector separates the information into a spectrum from past fire to existing fire to high or low fire potential and many ranges between. These images are especially useful in visualizing the progress of fast-growing fires and finding fires in remote areas.

To complete the assessment of conditions in the area, NOAA's National Weather Service provides up-to-the minute forecasting of precipitation, surface temperatures, and wind direction and speed from certified "incident meteorologists" located on-site in the incident command center or into the wild fire area to collect data. Nine of NOAA Weather Service's 51 certified IMETs are currently involved in wildfire mitigation. Three of the specially trained fire-weather IMETs are now in Colorado.

"These forecasters give the fire managers a critical advantage and enable them to better plan how to battle the blaze," said David Billingsley, NOAA Weather Service's fire weather program manager. "Our fire weather forecasters give the wildfire managers the ability to make informed decisions about deploying assets and ensuring the safety of their firefighting units."

"The satellite fire detection algorithm is making it easier for fire-weather forecasters to do their job," said Elaine Prins, NOAA research meteorologist who developed the product. "The wildfire ABBA product has monitored the rapid intensification of a number of wildfires including the Viejas fire in San Diego and the Thirty Mile fire in the state of Washington in 2001."

On a larger scope, NOAA's weather forecast offices in Colorado help the on-scene IMETs better predict the course and intensity of the fire, as well as to prepare the individual firefighters for the conditions they will be entering by giving longer-range forecasts and supplementing the IMET's work.

"Our NOAA weather offices in Denver, Pueblo and Grand Junction are providing site-specific forecasts and briefings to firefighters making initial attacks on new fire starts," said Larry Mooney, meteorologist in charge of NOAA's Denver Weather Forecast Office. "Our forecasters are getting more requests for fire weather information because everyone, everywhere is on guard."

"The satellite fire detection algorithm is making it easier for fire-weather forecasters to do their job," said Elaine Prins, NOAA research meteorologist who developed the product. "The wildfire ABBA product has monitored the rapid intensification of a number of wildfires including the Viejas fire in San Diego and the Thirty Mile fire in the state of Washington in 2001."

One of Colorado's worst droughts in history has contributed to the current wildfires. Above-normal rains are predicted over much of Colorado and eastern Utah, but the rain amounts will do little to improve the dry conditions and fall short in erasing the precipitation deficit there, according to the drought update given by climate experts of NOAA Weather Service yesterday.

The system was developed by NOAA researchers in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin Space Science and Engineering Center in Madison, Wis. Although its products are currently being used in Colorado, the methodology is still in its final phases of development, and will likely be fully operational in September.

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NOAA has dispatched three specially-trained fire-weather forecasters to help fire management teams to provide site-specific weather forecasts for wildfires and ensure the safety of firefighters in Colorado. These Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) are using special, portable meteorological units and new NOAA remote satellite images that track fire progression.

Accurate forecasts of wind direction and speed protect firefighters, strongly influence fire strategy, and help incident commanders make the best possible decisions. IMETs are specially trained in microscale (less than 1 km) meteorology and employ a variety of special tools to prepare the forecast that contributes to the safety of all personnel involved in the management of fires. Site-specific fire-weather forecasts are prepared on demand.

NOAA has 51 trained IMETs who are deployed to hundreds of wildfires across the United States each year to forecast incidents of all sizes -- from less than one to many thousand acres.

IMET duties

  • Give regular briefings to operational fire management teams planning where to place crews and how to fight the fire.
  • Draw from meteorological information sources such as computer-produced weather models, and local weather observations and data from nearest NOAA weather forecast office.

IMET equipment

  • Advanced Technology Meteorological Units, weighing about 250 pounds, enable fire forecasters to operate at the fire command centers, providing close meteorological support to the suppression efforts.
  • laptop computers to access latest surface and upper-air observations, as well as Doppler weather radar and satellite information from National Weather Service field offices.

Challenges of Fire Weather Forecasting

  • dry cold fronts can change the direction and speed of the wind.
  • dry thunderstorms cause downbursts, erratic winds and dangerous lightning.
  • ocean weather can influence winds, humidity, and temperatures in coastal areas.

Since 1914, NOAA's meteorologists have worked closely with fire control specialists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, and other federal, state and local fire control agencies. The meteorologists use their knowledge of weather as a critical element to effective management of activities aimed at protecting people and valuable renewable resources.

NOAA is an agency of the Department of Commerce. NOAA's National Weather Service is the primary source of weather data, forecasts and warnings for the United States and its territories. The National Weather Service operates the most advanced weather and flood warning and forecast system in the world, helping to protect lives and property and enhance the national economy.

For more on the NOAA Fire Weather Program

New NOAA Satellite Product Finds and Tracks Colorado Fires

NOAA has developed an algorithm, or technique, that enables fire-weather forecasters and other emergency workers in Colorado and throughout the Western Hemisphere to rapidly detect and monitor forest fires. The technique, used by NOAA's National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center, automatically detects wildfires in environmental satellite imagery using information from NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, or GOES, flying some 23,000 miles above the equator.

The technique, called the Wildfire Automated Biomass Burning Algorithm -- or ABBA --
uses NOAA's geostationary satellites to detect and monitor forest fires every half-hour.
NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., combines the images taken from the two GOES every half hour, for a total of 96 images in a 24 hours, and produces one new image. This single image shows all wildfires detected at a 4-kilometer resolution.

This imagery data helps forecasters know where the wildfires are located even in open country where there are no visible large smoke plumes or people. In addition, the SPC meteorologists can overlay geographic information and zoom in on particular "hot spots" that are detected, such as the ongoing fires in Colorado. This information can then be combined with other weather data to produce daily fire weather forecasts.

These two GOES keep a constant watch over specific fires as they orbit at the speed of the Earth's rotation. NOAA satellites GOES-8 East and GOES-10 West supply the data used to create the fire products every half hour for all locations in the entire Western Hemisphere. GOES satellites are typically used in weather forecasting, but this new algorithm has expanded their use to include fire detection and monitoring.

The geostationary Wildfire ABBA, the most complex satellite fire detection method available, allows for early detection of rapidly growing fires, especially in remote areas, and half-hourly monitoring to indicate if the fire is intensifying or not. Currently it takes 90 minutes for the data to be posted on-line, but NOAA is working to make the data available faster.

The algorithm was developed by a NOAA research scientist at the University of Wisconsin Space Science and Engineering Center. This Internet-based product is available to firefighters and the general public in near real-time. Animations of fire product imagery for the past 24 hours are available on-line at