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Satellites Aid First Responders in Labor Day Fires

Satellite images processed by a researcher at the  Center for Research detect for thermal energy. Black areas on the map designate burned areas in Bastrop County, and purple and pink areas represent where vegetation is dead but not burned. The images were used by officials during wildfires that engulfed parts of the state in September, and they shed potentially life-saving information on where fires are most intense and where they are likely to pop up next.

Satellite images processed by the Center for Research show the recent impact of drought and wildfires in Texas. Black areas in the image are burned areas in Bastrop County, and purple and pink areas represent where vegetation is damaged but not incinerated. View a slideshow of more satellite images. Photos courtesy of Gordon Wells.

On Sept. 9, University of Texas researcher Gordon Wells was stationed at the Texas Division of Emergency Management headquarters, where he and other emergency officials were monitoring fast-moving wildfires that sparked a few days prior and were now burning thousands of acres around the state, igniting homes in their path and reaping the greatest devastation in Bastrop.

Wells, a researcher at the Cockrell School of Engineering's Center for Space Research (CSR), was on-hand because of the advanced satellite images he and the center are renowned for producing. The images, taken through collaboration between the center and the U.S. Air Force, allow responders to monitor disasters in real-time and shed potentially life-saving insight on the path of the fires, their intensity and where they will pop up next.

In perhaps what was one of the most telling examples of their power, Wells used the satellite sensors to detect a fire 130 miles away in Magnolia near Houston — before officials on the ground there, and just a mile from the fire, could even see it.

"Suddenly, we had this break out of fire points showing up on the satellite and [the fires] were approaching the area in Magnolia where they had the incident command center," Wells said. "So I asked the operations lead of the Emergency Management Council, 'Can we call them up and find out what's happening there?'"

When they did, officials in Magnolia were unaware of the advancing fire until they walked to the other side of the building to look out a window.

"They reported there were people running across the fields to get away from the fire," Wells said. "So we'd actually detected this before they'd seen it at the incident command center less than a mile away. That made a deep impression on the people there because this is a powerful technique that can be used in real-time to provide emergency responders with detailed guidance on where these fires are flaring up."

Among their applications, the satellite images processed by CSR can detect thermal energy — meaning they can show hotspots on the ground that wouldn't otherwise be seen by nearby emergency responders or residents until they erupt into fires. In images used during the Bastrop fires, emergency officials were able to safely track where the fires were most intense and where they might be forming. Satellite images can also show the results of a fire's impact on the landscape — with areas in black representing where vegetation is most badly burned and pink and purple detailing where vegetation is dead but not completely incinerated.

"Responders don't always need to know where the big flame area is because they can see that. What they need to know is where are the areas the fire is not flaming as brightly or latent heat is not visible to the naked eye," Wells said.

Advanced satellite technology defines damage

Satellite technology such as Wells' has advanced over the years, allowing emergency responders to be proactive about fires and other natural disasters rather than reactive.

The images also have far-reaching applications. For instance, Wells and aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics Professor Clint Dawson were called upon to simulate the impact of BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill on coastal areas. Using CSR's three rooftop antennas that receive regular satellite photos from the 14 American and international satellites passing over the Gulf, Wells provided images of the spill to NOAA's Marine Pollution Surveillance team three hours faster than NASA.

At the state Emergency Operations Center in North Austin Gordon Wells (left) with the Center for Space Research, shows Gov. Rick Perry (right) and his emergency management chief, Jack Colley, the latest projections for Hurricane Gustav's path.

Gordon Wells (left), shows Gov. Rick Perry (right) and
his emergency management chief, Jack Colley, the latest
projections for Hurricane Gustav's path. Photo: Larry Kolvoord -
Austin American-Statesman

Satellite images were also used to assess the damage caused by Hurricanes Dolly, Ike and Gustav in 2008. Recently, local shelters used a mass evacuation tracking system that Wells developed to assist emergency sheltering during the Bastrop wildfires.

Wells designed the original tracking system in 2006 following an executive order by Gov. Rick Perry for the state to create an electronic system to manage mass evacuations. The comprehensive data-management system provides real-time information about displaced people who receive state assistance to evacuate before, during and after a disaster.

Last month, the system won a major award from the International Association of Emergency Managers.

"This award is great evidence for the value of using real-time tracking and communications technologies to conduct mass evacuations and monitor first responders in the field," Wells said. "It shows that professionals in the emergency management community recognize the important steps that Texas has taken to create a system that traces the moment-by-moment movement of tens of thousands of evacuees and thousands of buses, ambulances and other vehicles transporting assets in an emergency."

Monitoring drought and rebuilding

Even before the massive Texas wildfires in September, Wells was tracking the state's severe drought, and his images could prove useful as the state seeks to extend a federal disaster declaration following the fires.

"Our satellite images will provide good evidence about how unique 2011 was versus all other years," Wells said, adding that the extreme drought conditions, coupled with low humidity and high winds, caused the wildfires to spread very rapidly in September.

In the meantime, Wells continues to monitor drought conditions and agencies around the state are using his satellite images to aid rebuilding following the wildfires.

Texas Parks and Wildlife is using his images to evaluate how controlled burns prior to the September fires may have helped reduce damage and spread of the fires. Officials in Bastrop are also using the images for a new resource conservation plan and in a FEMA project to create a new floodplain map because the fires removed vegetation affecting how rainfall runoff will occur.

"The better we can model and simulate these disasters, the better prepared we will be when they happen because we have a forecast, we know what to expect, and we will know how to prepare and position our responders," Wells said.