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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.

Firefighters have been busy lately. Forest fires have burned land in the West and Alaska. To control a fire, it must be fought from all directions. Water is sprayed from hoses on the ground. And it is dropped from airplanes in the sky. There are even "smokejumpers." These are people who jump from planes to get near fires. Parachutes help them land safely.

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 (first) and Alaska (second). Credit: NASA

Help also comes from way up in space. That's where MODIS is. MODIS is a NASA instrument. It orbits the Earth on a satellite. The data it collects helps spot new fires. And it can help predict which way a fire might move. That makes it easier to figure out where to send people and equipment.

MODIS was launched into space in 1999. It didn't take long to find out how useful it would be. The year 2000 was an active one for fires. Some of the worst were in Montana and Idaho. The smoke was pretty bad. It was so bad that it blocked aircraft from seeing the fires. Good thing MODIS was watching from space. It was able to see the fires through the smoke.

Sean Triplett fights fires in Alaska. He does this with MODIS and computers. He combines MODIS fire data with maps. Sometimes the maps show roads and people. Or they may show plants and mountains.

MODIS is used to fight fires all over the world. But it's a really big help in Alaska. Why is that? Because fires there often take place in areas that can't be reached by roads. And there are only so many aircraft. Also, fires can break out even when many lakes are frozen. MODIS can find places where ice has melted. A lot of liquid water is needed to put out flames.

"Satellites are another eye in the sky," Triplett says.

Not too long go, he got to see why his work is so important. He spent two weeks with a firefighting crew. The crew was fighting a large fire in Alaska. Sean was right up in front of the fire. He ran water pumps. He cleared brush out of the way. He did everything the rest of the crew did.
Sean Triplett standing in front of trees and next to a dog
Image above: Sean Triplett comes home from two weeks with a firefighting crew. Credit: NASA

He says he did this to get an idea of what life is like for firefighters. And he wanted to see how they use the data he gives them. He says he learned a lot. Now he has some ideas to make his data and maps better.

Triplett has only one bad thing to say about his trip. It doesn't have anything to do with how hot it was near the fire. He didn't even mind not taking a shower the whole time.

So what's his complaint?

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

See previous Earth Explorers articles:
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Related Resource
MODIS Fire Images
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies