Aug. 19, 2002 College Park, Md. - Even before a forest fire is out, federal land management agencies must assess burn damage and move to protect soil stability and water quality in the hardest hit areas. With some 5.5 million acres already burned this year and much of the fire season still ahead, these agencies face a daunting task. However, they soon may get help from above. Researchers at the University of Maryland, NASA Goddard and the USDA Forest Service are creating software that can take data from NASA satellites and provide agencies with faster, broader assessments of the severity of burn damage.
"It is crucial for fire management and rehabilitation of the damaged area that a rehabilitation plan is established within 10 days after a fire is contained," said Rob Sohlberg, Maryland's leader on the project and a researcher in the university's department of geography. "Satellite-based burn severity maps hopefully will accelerate this planning process."
During the week of August 19, Sohlberg and two other Maryland researchers will travel to fire damaged areas in Oregon and California. Together with collaborators from the Forest Service andthe Bureau of Land Management, they will conduct field assessments of the severity of fire damage. The fieldwork will help the researchers understand what the Forest Service looks for at the ground level in terms of the hydraulic properties of the soil and the extent of vegetation damage. The researchers can then refine their software to ensure it can analyze satellite data and consistently provide accurate fire damage information.
Because there is so much variability in the effects of fires, the Rapid Response researchers must develop a software program that is universal to all fires. In the past, assessment of the burn severity has been done manually. But with large wildfires, only a small percentage of the burned area can be sampled by personnel on the ground.
"Assessments based on satellite data can be much faster, cover more area and be more consistent than the current manually developed assessments," Sohlberg said.
The development of burn severity software is the latest in a collaborative effort between the university, NASA, and the Forest Service that is known as the Rapid Response project. The project has been helping the Forest Service and other fire fighting agencies to strategically manage the nation's fire fighting resources.
Last year the university and its federal partners in the project began using NASA's Terra satellite and new streamlined data processing to detect active fire locations and provide images and maps of wildfires in near-real time.
The satellite-derived information on fire damage will be used by Burned-Area Emergency Rehabilitation teams to create burn severity maps. These maps are used to determine areas that need immediate action to prevent further erosion, soil loss and adverse impacts on water quality.
"This trip is crucial for two reasons. We want to be able to use our resources to best support federal wildfire managers and we want to gather as much information as possible from the fieldwork while we are still in the fire season," Sohlberg said.
The researchers, who all went through fire fighter training, will travel to several fire locations, including the huge Biscuit Fire in the Siskiyou National Forest. The Biscuit Fire is still burning in Oregon and California and has consumed more than 390,000 acres of timber.
The university is working with the Forest Service's Remote Sensing Applications Center to develop the new burn severity software. Principal investigators for the project are Thomas Bobbe and Mark Finco of the Remote Sensing Applications Center, Annette Parsons of the Bureau of Land Management and Rob Sohlberg of the University of Maryland. Also participating in the burn severity project from the University of Maryland are department of geography researchers Bethany Semeiks and Mark Carroll. The project is funded by the Joint Fire Science Program, part of the National Interagency Fire Center, and the NASA Solid Earth and Natural Hazards program.
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LINKS: Satellite images and other information available at http://rapidresponse.umd.edu/
More information on Rob Sohlberg and Wildfire Response Team http://www.geog.umd.edu/news/sohlberg.html
University of Maryland Department of Geography (a national leader in remote sensing research) http://www.geog.umd.edu/
Biscuit Fire http://www.biscuitfire.com/
USDA Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center http://www.fs.fed.us/eng/rsac/
University of Maryland Global Land Cover Facility http://glcf.umiacs.umd.edu/
The Global Land Cover Facility makes available to the public a variety of free science data products including satellite imagery of the Earth, classified images of the Earth's land cover, Marsh area health data, and much more.
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