Issue 26, July - October 2003

Breakthrough websites track fires by satellite

Page from North Australian Fire Information website

Page from the new North Australian Fire Information website—see link below

Satellites have been providing people with images of bushfires from space for years, but data was usually updated infrequently and used by government agencies or large companies. Now, advances in web and satellite technology mean fires can be monitored soon after they are detected—by anybody with a reasonable internet connection writes Peter Jacklyn .

One of the first websites to offer satellite-based views of fire to the public was developed by Western Australia’s Department of Land Assessment in the late 90s. It showed simple maps of ‘hotspots’—the location of suspected fires—as seen by each satellite pass. Hotspots were calculated from images provided by American weather satellites (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA). Although designed to measure things like cloud and sea temperatures, instruments on NOAA satellites could locate fires to within about four square kilometres.

In the last few years, however, NASA has launched two satellites, Aqua and Terra, specifically designed to monitor the earth’s surface. One of the detectors they carry is the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) which can be used to locate burning fires to within about a square kilometre. The new NASA satellites, together with the NOAA satellites, can now provide a few readings a day, making it possible to monitor fires in close to real time (cloud cover permitting). Recent advances in web technology now allow hotspots to be placed on interactive web-based maps, where users can zoom in, display detailed map features, and query hotspots for their time of detection.

Last year CSIRO, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation and Geoscience Australia developed the Sentinel website that used MODIS data to display hotspots on an interactive map. The site is aimed largely at emergency services which need to respond to fires quickly. The site shows hotspots detected at various times over the most recent three days. WA’s Department of Land Information (DLI) also has a site that shows hotspots and fire histories from both MODIS and NOAA on an interactive map.

The latest interactive fire mapping website is the North Australian Fire Information or NAFI site, developed by Tropical Savannas CRC and Ecobyte Systems in collaboration with the Bush Fires Council NT, Kimberley Regional Fire Management Project and the Cape York Peninsula Development Association. It is designed to meet the needs of northern rural and remote fire managers and uses hotspot data supplied by Sentinel and WA DLI.

Remote fire managers not only want to know where fires are burning now, but what areas have already been burnt as recently burned areas can be used as fire breaks. The NAFI site allows users to see hotspots from all months of the year as well as recent hotspots.

The site also shows fire scars which are hand-mapped from satellite images and put onto the site every few weeks. Users can also navigate to different map locations by clicking on text links rather than zooming in on images. Customised ‘quicklooks’ can also be created that deliver a compact image of fires in an area with one mouse click.

Developers are also providing back-up fire information such as emails and faxes of hotspot locations.


Mr Andrew Edwards
GIS Officer
Dept Natural Resources, Environment & the Arts
Tel: 08 8944 8464

Fax: 08 8944 8455

PO Box 496