Fighting fire in real time

7 June 2006

May to October are the driest months of the year for the northern parts of South Africa. Now a fire map broadcast nightly on the SABC’s weather reports will be able to show active fires throughout the country, as detected by satellites over the preceding 12 hours.

The maps are just one result of a partnership between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and power utility Eskom.

The Advanced Fire Information System (AFIS) is a satellite-based system, able to provide information on developing wildfires in near real-time, as the data is updated every 15 minutes.

The first fire map was broadcast on Tuesday 6 June, and showed fire activity across the country for the preceding twelve hours.

“This is a prime example of a private-public sector partnership, using the power of science and technology outcomes, to the benefit of the public,” said CSIR president Dr Sibusiso Sibisi.

“Through the CSIR’s research expertise, and its application for Eskom, people will get a better understanding of the extent and threat of fires in South Africa.”

Fire damage
According to the CSIR sub-Saharan Africa has the highest frequency of fires in the world. While wildfire is a natural phenomenon, people are responsible for most fires, sometimes with devastating consequences for humans, animals (wild and livestock), vegetation and infrastructure. In 2002, wild fires cost South Africa more than R300-million in damage to infrastructure, loss and grazing land and livestock.

With seed funding from the Department of Agriculture, the Satellite Applications Centre at Hartebeesthoek, north-west of Johannesburg, was able to upgrade its facilities to receive and process Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro-radiometer (MODIS) imagery.

Eskom maintains high-tension power lines that cross many of the areas most at risk of runaway wildfires.

Eskom first implemented AFIS in June 2004, scanning a buffer of five kilometres along all transmission lines, searching for any fire hot-spots at 15 minute time intervals. The system has since grown to provide countrywide data.

The system was developed in collaboration with the University of Maryland and Nasa’s Earth Observation Systems.

Satellite imaging
Two sets of satellites provide fire data for AFIS: the geostationary Meteosat Second Generation (MSG) that scans every 15 minutes; and Nasa’s Aqua and Terra satellites, which together provide an additional four high resolution MODIS scans each day.

“Whenever the satellite takes an image, it will look for specific brightnesses … and look for anomalies,” Frederic Claudel, a CSIR researcher told Tectonic magazine.

Basically, the satellites sense anomalies in brightness and temperature caused by large fires. The MSG satellite will detect fires once they have reached a size of approximately 500m2, while the Nasa satellites can, in ideal conditions, detect fires as small as 50m2.

It won’t pick up a barbecue in your garden, said Claudel, but it will flag the more serious fires in your region.

As soon as a fire is detected, SMS’s and e-mails are sent out to the relevant agencies, often the first warning that is received.

All of the fire data is available on a publicly accessible website, including historical fire data, a useful resource for many researchers.

“As AFIS is a new system, we are still experimenting and improving the system,” said Eskom’s Hein Vosloo. reporter

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