Firefighters see help from above

A team led by NASA and US Forest Service scientists used a remotely piloted aircraft — the Altair Unmanned Aircraft System — to collect data from visible and infrared spectrums in real time over the recent Esperanza fire in California.

The huge blaze was started by arsonists in late October, and was fanned by the powerful Californian Santa Ana winds, gusting at up to 60mph. It eventually spread over an area of around 160 sq km, killing five firefighters and destroying 34 homes and 20 other structures.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Esperanza Fire Incident Command Center requested NASA’s assistance with imaging and fire mapping.

The UAV —built and operated by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems — was prepared to fly in less than 24 hours. Recent changes to US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) processes concerning unmanned flights meant the mission could go ahead quickly, without any new temporary flight restrictions.

From 13,000m, a wildfire sensor collected 100 images and more than 20 data files showing the location of the fire perimeter over a 16-hour period.

The data was sent in real time via satellite, and NASA and Forest Service staff helped the fire management team to understand the information. The data was then used to map the behaviour of the blaze and direct resources to critical areas.