Not too long ago, efficiently managing fires in remote locations meant a “firewatch”: a solitary figure on a high tower, miles from the nearest settlement, scanning the landscape from dawn until dusk. A “fire alert” meant either sounding an alarm or making a radio call, allowing community or agency fire brigades to respond to the fire as quickly as possible.
The need to detect and quickly respond to fires is no less pressing today. Fires are occurring on an unprecedented scale across the globe, significantly altering healthy ecosystems, contributing to carbon emissions via deforestation, and impacting human health and economies.
IN DEPTH: Learn about CI's forest carbon projects.
Today’s world requires a new level of vigilance, and a more rapid response. Modern life also demands a slightly higher vantage point; a firewatch shift that circles the globe and lasts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Future Tech for an Age-Old Problem
Developed as a partnership between Conservation International’s (CI) Center for Applied Biodiversity Science and numerous partners, a new Fire Alert System (FAS) provides subscription-based email notifications of fire occurrence in important conservation areas around the world.
FAS is currently available for Madagascar, Indonesia, Bolivia, and Peru, some of the most biologically rich—and imperiled—ecosystems in the world.
Detection of fires is courtesy of two NASA satellites, Terra and Aqua, each equipped with the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a sensor that captures images of the earth from onboard the satellite. MODIS measures specific activities such as cloud properties, vegetation patterns, ocean attributes, and fire.
DISCOVER: The Biodiversity Hotspots.
MODIS’s data resolution and accuracy in detecting fire is unsurpassed; it can detect a fire as small as 50 square meters (about 15 by 30 feet) with up to 90 percent accuracy. Since Terra and Aqua orbit the earth every one to two days, and MODIS transmits data to ground stations four times a day, it is possible to track fire occurrence, in real time, anywhere in the world.
This new, global-scale capability for real-time fire mapping and alerts is also designed to meet the needs of the diverse groups of users: FAS data can be delivered in a variety of formats, including text files, jpeg images, Google Earth layers, or GIS shapefiles, and both the website and alerts are translated to four different languages (English, Spanish, French, and Bahasa Indonesian). The FAS has already received an overwhelmingly positive response.
Making an Immediate Impact
For example, in Madagascar, data are being used for active fire suppression; as educational tools for fire control and prevention in villages; for prioritizing resource management and outreach activities; for improving protected areas and plantation forest management; for assessing the extent of burnt areas; as an indicator of effective forest management; as a tool for monitoring and verifying REDD climate projects; and for studying the influence of climate change on fire frequency.
LEARN MORE: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)
In Indonesia, Fire Alerts have repeatedly provided the Ministry of Forestry with proof of the illegal logging and forest clearing operations that have long been known to local communities and conservation groups. With the knowledge that illegal activity could be accurately targeted, the Indonesian government has responded quickly by increasing (and in some cases, even initiating) resources dedicated to enforcement. As a result, numerous long-term illegal operations have been removed from parks and protected areas.
Turning Science into Action
The Fire Alert system is impressive on its own, but it also is an example of a broad new direction in land management. Technological advances in remote sensing, mapping and electronic communications are giving CI an unprecedented real-time view of events occurring worldwide.
We may have progressed past binoculars, a tall tower and a radio; but the aim remains the same—empowering local communities with information about what is occurring in their landscapes, when it is occurring, so that they can better manage and protect their lands.
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