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In the Line of Fire

Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

From ground and sky, a war is being waged against fires in the western United States and Alaska. Firefighters cut down trees using axes and chainsaws. Aircraft douse flames with water. And "smokejumpers" parachute from planes to battle blazes in remote areas.

High above these raging hot spots -- 705 kilometers up, to be exact -- two NASA instruments watch. The instruments are called Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers, or MODIS. They fly onboard two NASA satellites. The data they collect helps detect new fires and predict which way they might spread. That helps fire response managers decide where to send the most people and equipment.

Satellite image of fires at Cave Creek in ArizonaSatellite image of fires in Alaska and the Yukon Territory
Images above: MODIS images showing fires in Arizona (left) and Alaska (right). Credit: NASA

In Alaska, Sean Triplett is the person who connects data gathered from space with fire response staff on the ground. He works for the Bureau of Land Management. He uses computers to combine MODIS fire data with maps of roads and people. Maps of plants and mountains are also important.

"My job is to take all the information and process it and make some sense of it. And then disseminate it out to the parties that are going to use it," Triplett said.

The first MODIS was launched in 1999. It didn't take long to realize how useful it would be. 2000 was an active year for fires in Montana and Idaho. The smoke was so bad that it blocked aircraft from seeing the fires. But from way out in space, MODIS was able to see through the smoke. The next year, NASA joined forces with the University of Maryland and the U.S. Forest Service. Together, they developed a system to make fire maps within a few hours, in some cases within minutes, after a MODIS flyby.

MODIS is used in fire response throughout the country and the world. But it is especially important in Alaska. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, fires there often occur in areas that cannot be reached by roads, and there are only so many aircraft. Second, fires in Alaska can break out even when many lakes are frozen. MODIS can locate open bodies of water needed to quench fires.

"Satellites are a huge source of intelligence here," Triplett said. "Satellites are another eye in the sky."

Sean Triplett standing in front of trees and next to a dog
Image to right: Sean Triplett arrives home from his two-week tour with a firefighting crew. Credit: NASA

Recently, Triplett had a chance to see firsthand why his work is so important. He went out for two weeks with a crew battling the Sheenjek River fire. As of July 1, this fire had burned more than 82,000 acres of land near Fort Yukon, Alaska.

Triplett was right on the frontlines. He operated water pumps and cleared brush out of the way. He attacked the fire just like any other member of the crew. He says he did this to get a better idea of what life is like for firefighters. And he wanted to see how they use the data he provides. Now, he's trying to come up with even more useful products based on what he learned.

After 14 days of intense heat, toxic smoke and no running water, Triplett had just one complaint:

"I still can't get any of my clothes to get all the smoke smell out of it."

See previous Earth Explorers articles:
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Related Resources
MODIS Active Fire Mapping Program
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MODIS Fire Images
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Event-Based Science: Fire!
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies