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Using satellites and AI, space-based technology is shaping the future of firefighting

The current space race isn’t just for billionaires.

Using satellites, drones and artificial intelligence, emerging technology is changing the way firefighting agencies and governments battle the ever-increasing threat of wildfires as hundreds of thousands of acres burn across the western United States.

New programs are being developed by startups and research institutions to predict fire behavior, monitor drought and even detect fires when they first start. As climate change continues to increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires, these breakthroughs offer at least one tool in the growing arsenal of prevention and suppression strategies.

“This is not to replace firefighting on the ground,” said Ilkay Altintas, a computer scientist with the University of California, San Diego, who developed a fire map for the region. “The more science and data we can give firefighters and the public, the quicker we’ll have solutions to combat and mitigate wildfires.”

More than 80 large fires and complexes have scorched more than 1.3 million acres across 13 states this year as of Friday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and additional fires are breaking out almost every week.

The country’s largest inferno, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, has forced thousands of residents to evacuate since lightning sparked it July 6. Smoke from the Western blazes is so thick that East Coast residents were treated this week to a spectacular, if worrisome, fiery sunrise and hazy skies.

The Statue of Liberty is seen through a cover of wildfire smoke as seen from Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 21, 2021.Brendan McDermid / Reuters

“As the risk for catastrophic wildfire grows, so should our ability to forecast wildfires and to mitigate fire risk,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said last month during a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing.

Her own district, which includes San Mateo County, was one of several Northern California communities affected by last year’s CZU Lightning Complex Fire that torched nearly 90,000 acres over five weeks. Lofgren is one of several congressional leaders working to introduce legislation that would bolster funding for the “understanding, prediction, and management of wildland fires through robust research initiatives.” Her bill would also aim to better integrate science agencies into federal wildfire response strategies, she said.

Despite San Mateo’s proximity to Silicon Valley, the tech capital has been slow to embrace firefighting innovation. That started to change over the last year as more startups entered the sector, looking for federal and state partners to fund projects.

The U.S. Forest Service already uses predictive tools to monitor fire weather, fire danger and fuels, and provide intelligence for incident commanders, firefighters and support staff. But many of the tools available rely on satellite imaging that can take hours to transmit and analyze.

“A lot of the current operations just aren’t getting situational awareness as frequently as they would like,” said Andre Coleman, who is leading a team of researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.

Firefighters hinder the Dixie Fire from crossing the Feather River in Plumas National Forest, Calif., on July 17, 2021.David Swanson / Reuters

With initial funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Coleman helped develop a system in 2014 called Rapid Analytics for Disaster Response, or RADR, that uses image-capturing technology from satellites, aircraft, drones, artificial intelligence and cloud computing to assess the impact of natural disasters, including wildfires. An expanded version of the tool, called RADR-Fire, can reveal wildfire boundaries multiple times a day and link impact and risk to structures, substations and other critical infrastructure in the landscape.

Typically, when incident commanders can’t get an accurate read of a how big a fire is or where exactly it’s burning, they order aircraft support to record images of the fire, Coleman explained. Those images are then analyzed by support staff who create a map of the fire lines. The process can take hours where Coleman’s tool can provide the information within minutes.

“Coordination can be challenging,” he said. “This can help with evacuation routes to help understand where search and rescue needs to go.”

German company OroraTech is also aiming to provide real-time fire data but at a global scale. Based in Munich, the startup is building a constellation of 100 small satellites, about the size of a shoebox each, outfitted with thermal infrared cameras to monitor the planet and report, within an hour of ignition, any fire larger than 10 meters, or about 33 feet.

The first of these nanosatellites will launch in December with the help of the Silicon Valley-based Spire, a space-to-cloud data and analytics company, and Space X. Fourteen more satellites could launch by 2023.

“Having an overview from the top, with the highest possible refresh rate, that is the most important part” of understanding and predicting fire behavior, Björn Stoffers, OroraTech co-founder and chief marketing officer, said.

“We saw that every state has their own system and their own warning tools, and we saw huge discrepancies with those maps, especially with them being outdated,” he said. “We’re already quite a bit faster.”

A firefighting tanker makes a drop over the Grandview Fire near Sisters, Ore., on July 11, 2021.Oregon Fire Department / AP

Last year, while smoke from the historic wildfires choked the air for millions of people across the country, OroraTech graduated from the Google Accelerator. Since then, the company raised $7 million in investments to build its global wildfire warning system. Its software platform is already being used in Canada, South America, Africa and Australia but the big target is signing partners in the United States, Stoffers said.

A quick tutorial of the program revealed a map similar to Google Earth that shows not just the location of a fire, but also any surrounding spot fires, air particles, wind patterns and cloud cover. Researchers are currently working to add a lightning strike layer to the existing platform. Users can also measure the distance of smoke plumes and see, in real time, the direction dangerous air particles are traveling.

OroraTech is just one of several companies using space-based technology to monitor wildfires. San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company Chooch AI uses a system that analyzes satellite images every 10 minutes to identify where new wildfires started, The Associated Press reported. And tech startup Salo Sciences teamed up with Planet, a satellite company founded by NASA scientists, to build a monitoring system called the California Forest Observatory, which uses AI and satellite images to create a detailed map of forested land in California to help predict and prevent wildfires.

“Especially in California, if Silicon Valley is next to those wildfire disasters, you can bet there are other companies working to mitigate the effects,” Stoffers said.

In Southern California, Ilkay Altintas and her team of computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego’s WIFIRE Lab developed a fire map for the region that can be used by incident commanders and researchers to model fire behavior in real time.

The map uses artificial intelligence and information from previous fires to predict how new fires will burn and to help plan prescribed burns, which can help keep forests thinned and healthy and therefore prevent future megafires like what the West has experienced over the last few years.

“In California, we do science and tech really well,” Altintas said. “It’s an evolution of what we already have.”

WIFIRE Lab’s fire map is already being used, she added, by local and state agencies in Southern California, and helped inform attack plans for the Palisades Fire, which threatened homes in affluent Los Angeles-area neighborhoods, and the Bobcat Fire last year that came close to the historic Mount Wilson Observatory in the Angeles National Forest.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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