UW research scientist coordinates satellite images to help control California fires

UW News

For nearly two weeks, unprecedented fires have raged in California, resulting in 80 lives lost and thousands missing or displaced, thousands more homes destroyed and the air quality polluted to dangerous levels. Even a historic movie ranch in Agoura Hills used to shoot HBO’s “Westworld” has perished.

On Nov. 14, Ramesh Sivanpillai, a University of Wyoming senior research scientist in the Department of Botany and the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center (WyGISC), was tapped by the International Charter Space and Major Disasters to be the project manager for its California wildfire response efforts. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) initiated the response effort and nominated Sivanpillai as the project manager.

“I’m coordinating satellite image acquisition and distribution activities for this event,” says Sivanpillai, who is conducting his work from the UW campus. “In fact, folks from 17 agencies in 14 countries are members of the Charter, and everyone is volunteering their time for this cause.

“My job is to evaluate the quality of these images and get them to the National Guard Bureau official who will get them to interpreters and analysts,” he explains. “As the extent and direction of the fires change, I have to submit new requests to the member agencies in order to collect additional images.”

Sivanpillai says the satellite images can be used in two primary ways: For firefighters and rescue workers, the images can be used to chart the trajectory of the fire and what fuel, such as dead trees, lie in its path; and to chart smoke direction and air quality levels, and issue health warning announcements or recommend school closures.

“Firefighters and rescue workers can use the images for damage assessment,” he explains. “Many times, when you have these disasters, most first responders are not from that area. They are coming from other areas and other states. Many workers know where California is, but don’t know where Paradise, Calif., is.”

Paradise is a California community that was engulfed early by the Camp Fire, which started Nov. 8. The fire forced the town’s residents to flee, as the fire was reported to be burning at a rate of 80 acres a minute, due to strong winds and low humidity.

Sivanpillai has assembled a team of undergraduate and graduate student volunteers from his remote sensing course to assist with image processing tasks. In that class, students learn fire mapping. Morgan Elsom, a senior from Buffalo majoring in rangeland ecology and watershed management, jumped at the chance to help.

“I needed a project. When Ramesh brought this up as an option, it seemed like something realistic you would do for a job,” Elsom says. “There are techniques we are learning in class that we are trying out to create a footprint of burned areas.”

Elsom explains that some of the methods the students are using look at how much light is coming back in different regions of California to determine areas that have burned and those that haven’t. The Camp Fire is located in Northern California, and the Woolsey Fire is occurring in Southern California.

“So far, 11 students have participated in image analyses,” Sivanpillai says. “This is an added benefit to these UW students.”

Besides Elsom, the team consists of Caleb Gray and Evan Trotter, both of Casper; Jace Nerger, of Saratoga; Ann Stephens, of Worland; Elizabeth Mosqueda, of Salinas, Calif.; Chloe Mattilio, of Lancaster, Pa.; Britton Bentz, of Juntura, Ore.; Ryan Benjamin, of Nyssa, Ore.; Brandon Fulcher, of Dallas, Texas; Magali Romanet, of Lyon, France; Michael Mintah Baidoo, of Kasoa-Accra, Ghana; and Sunil Raju Vysyaraju, of Srikakulam, India.

The Charter, formed in 1999 by the United Nations, consists of members from 14 countries and has responded to disasters in 125 countries, providing free satellite data for the impacted regions.

The Charter is a worldwide collaboration through which satellite data are made available for the benefit of disaster management. By combining Earth observation assets from different space agencies, the Charter allows resources and expertise to be coordinated for rapid response to major disaster situations, thereby helping civil protection authorities and the international humanitarian community.

This unique initiative is able to mobilize agencies around the world and benefit from their know-how and their satellites through a single access point that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and at no cost to the user.

Sivanpillai says he likely received the call to lead because he had experience working on major disasters. In 2011, he was tapped by the Charter to assist with major flooding in the Mississippi River that started in Illinois, an event that lasted roughly five months. Two years before that, Sivanpillai was selected by the USGS for project manager training in Denver. While a student at Texas A&M University in 1999, he volunteered to help with relief efforts in Nicaragua.

“This work is from a remarkable community of dedicated people,” says Sivanpillai, who adds he plans to process and provide more new images over the Thanksgiving weekend. “They don’t get paid, and everyone is working on this — even on the weekends. This is day and night. We are hoping they will bring the fire under control.”

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