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Other Space Activities

Fire Monitoring

Nov 3, 2023


Because of changes to the Earth’s climate in recent years, the frequency and intensity of wildfires have been increasing globally, so that nearly 4.3 million square kilometres are burned annually. Though wildfires are naturally occurring phenomena, and an important ecological function, this unusually high occurrence can be extraordinarily damaging in a variety of ways. Perhaps most prominent is the direct threat to human life posed by uncontrolled blazes, while additional damages can include ecological, cultural or economic losses. Of particular concern is the effect of uncontrolled wildfires on climate as the smoke released by such fires can be substantial. For example, in 2017, it was estimated that 150 million tonnes were released by wildfires in British Columbia, an amount two to three times the annual fossil fuel emissions of the province. Boreal and Arctic fires can be especially problematic in this context, as the wildfires burn not only vegetation, but also the carbon rich soils. These carbon emissions exacerbate climate change, which in turn exacerbates the risk of uncontrollable wildfires, generating a vicious positive feedback cycle. 1) 2) 3) 4)

Careful monitoring of wildfires can allow for effective disaster response efforts that minimise or avoid associated losses. For example, topographic, climatic, wind and fire presence data can allow estimations of where an active fire will spread, and at what speed, allowing settlements at risk to be evacuated and their residents moved to safety. In addition, fire mapping and monitoring can facilitate more accurate climate change modelling. Fire monitoring is, however, a difficult task. Historically, in some places, fire lookouts have been employed to live in strategically positioned elevated buildings and watch for fires, alerting the emergency services upon their sighting. Fire lookouts are still important for spotting fires and guiding response efforts but suffer from major limitations, such as limited viewing radii. More modern tools have been increasingly employed over the last few decades, such as the use of satellites and aerial vehicles that can observe larger areas and collect more data than the human eye. However, they are not without their limitations. 3) 4) 5)

Figure 1: Plumes of smoke originating from wildfires can be substantial in size, contributing to significant carbon increases in the atmosphere and reducing air quality for human health (Image credit: CFS)

A number of different satellites and aerial vehicles, with different sensors and instruments, are employed in the effort to monitor and predict wildfires. Some of these are designed specifically and solely for the job in question, others contribute to fire monitoring alongside other data measurements, and some have been assigned post-mission to observe fires. One of the principle measures of wildfires is Fire Radiative Power (FRP), with higher FRPs indicating more intense fires. Two main types of fire-monitoring satellites are employed: orbiting satellites which observe the entire planet several times a day; and geostationary satellites that observe specific, large-scale locations at coarse resolutions. Each satellite has its limitations in terms of what its sensors can detect, what resolution its images are, and - for orbiting satellites - how frequently it passes over the target location, i.e., satellite revisit time. To tackle these limitations, data are corroborated from a fleet of satellites to account for individual limitations and ensure the most accurate fire monitoring and forecasting possible. For pre-fire risk assessment and mapping, data are acquired on precipitation, soil moisture, drought severity, topography, land surface temperatures, and vegetation density and extent. For real-time fire monitoring, data on radiative power and total burn area are acquired, and used in combination with the pre-fire risk assessment data to predict how the fire will behave in the near future. Post-fire mapping incorporates data on total burned area, burn severity, and vegetation regrowth. 4) 6)

Instruments used in fire monitoring are numerous and examples include MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer), VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite), and CALIOP (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar with Orthogonal Polarisation Instrument). MODIS can be found on board NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites and uses visible and infrared electromagnetic radiation to detect hotspots in temperature on the ground, where the temperature of a specific location is determined to be higher than the background temperature of the wider area. VIIRS can be found on board NASA-NOAA’s Suomi-NPP and JPSS satellites and functions similarly to MODIS, only at a finer spatial resolution of 375 metres. This finer resolution allows detection of smaller fires. MODIS and VIIRS can detect heat signatures at daytime and at night-time. CALIOP can be found on board the CALIPSO (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation) satellite and observes smoke plume injection height as well as vertical aerosol distributions through the atmosphere. The instrument is uniquely able to detect optically thin smoke layers at a fine vertical resolution, allowing extensive smoke plumes that lack clear boundaries to be observed. CALIOP data can be combined with models to attribute smoke rivers to their originating fires and to monitor the evolution of smoke-plume injection heights over time, with implications for climate, air quality, and human health. 4)

Figure 2: An image from VIIRS on the Suomi NPP satellite demonstrating the presence of a wildfire. Red pixels represent the hottest parts of the fire while the yellow pixels represent the coolest parts (Image credit: NASA/NOAA)

Example Products

Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS)

GWIS, a joint initiative of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and Copernicus work programmes, coalesces existing national and regional information on fire occurrences in order to provide a comprehensive data source on fire regimes and fire impacts around the globe for use as a supportive tool in operational fire management at different scales. The system builds on data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS)Global Observation of Forest Cover-Global Observation of Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD)Fire Implementation Team (GOFC Fire IT), and associated Regional Networks. Within GWIS, there are five applications: current situation viewer, current statistics portal, country profiles, long-term fire weather forecast, and data and services. The data on wildfires from GWIS is global and open-access, allowing anyone to access and assess fire risk information. 7)

GWIS Near-Real Time (NRT) information is based on combined thermal anomaly data from the MODIS and VIIRS sensors. The product uses data from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). 8)

Figure 3: GWIS map of global fire hotspots as sensed by MODIS and VIIRS between 4 August 2023 and 5 August 2023 (Image credit: GWIS)
Figure 4: Weekly emissions of carbon dioxide for Europe from wildfires for the year 2023, with 2003-2022 average and min-max variation included. Similar graphs can be found on the GWIS website providing weekly total and weekly cumulative information on, for example, burned areas, number of fires, and thermal anomalies (Image credit: GWIS)   

Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS)

A part of NASA’s Land, Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE), FIRMS provides NRT active fire data from MODIS and VIIRS in an open-access, global data product. Data for the U.S. and Canada is instantly available, whilst global data is available within 3 hours of satellite observations.

Figure 5: FIRMS map of active wildfires across the US and Canada as sensed by MODIS and VIIRS between July 23 2023 and August 5 2023. Fire symbols represent active wildfires larger than 1,000 acres (Image credit: FIRMS).

Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS)/ Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS)

Using the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS), the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) employs satellite observation data to monitor wildfires and their associated smoke plumes, as well as estimating levels of pyrogenic pollutants emitted to the atmosphere. The dataset of GFAS began in 2003, and so can be used to place wildfire occurrences in the context of the changing climate.  CAMS data can be accessed from a user-friendly website and mobile application entitled Windy. 6) 12)

Figure 6: Demonstration of the Windy website for use in fire monitoring. Darker red colours indicate increased fire presence and intensity. Screenshots taken 30 August 2023 Image credit:

Related Missions


WildFireSat is a joint initiative from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Canadian Forest Service (CFS), Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation (CCMEO), and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) that aims to support wildfire management. Monitoring the extent of wildfires in Canada through its FRP-measuring infrared sensors, WildFireSat also measures carbon emissions from the fires, allowing these to be included in the country’s carbon reporting. A major benefit of this satellite is that it provides coverage for Canada in the afternoon and early evening, when wildfire risk is highest due to high temperature, low humidity, and strong winds. Data from WildFireSat will be instantly made publicly available. 3)

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Terra and Aqua

The Terra and Aqua satellites are major components of NASA’s fire monitoring program. The principal instrument used by the Terra and Aqua satellites for fire monitoring is MODIS. Data from the satellites MODIS operates at a spatial resolution of 1 km and a swath width of 2,330 km, providing images of every point on Earth every 1-2 days in 36 discrete spectral bands. The two satellites follow complementary orbits, allowing maximum coverage of the Earth.  13) 14)

Terra: Read More

Aqua: Read More


Suomi NPP (National Polar-Orbiting Partnership) is a multifunctional satellite operated by NASA-NOAA that contributes data towards studies and observations of climate change, ozone layer health, natural disasters (including wildfires), weather predictions, vegetation, ice cover, air pollution, temperatures, and the Earth’s energy budget. Data is collected with onboard VIIRS, Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS), and Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) sensors. 15)

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Sentinel-1 and -2

Sentinel -1 and -2 satellites are Earth observation satellites developed and operated by ESA as part of the Copernicus initiative. Sentinel-1 is composed of two polar-orbiting satellites operating day and night, with radar imaging capabilities allowing weather-independent imagery. Sentinel-2 is also composed of two polar-orbiting satellites with high-resolution optical imagery capabilities. The limitations of the two mission’s sensors can be compensated by the other missions. For example, Sentinel-1’s sensors are not sensitive to ground moisture and Sentinel-2’s sensors struggle with cloud perturbations. When used in combination, data from the two missions can provide robust information on burnt area extent. 16) 17)

Sentinel-1: Read More

Sentinel-2: Read More


Sentinel-3 is a jointly-operated mission between ESA and EUMETSAT that delivers ocean and land observation data to support Copernicus applications. Through its measurements, sentinel-3 provides secondary products that include global fire monitoring products. These include fire radiation power, burned area extent, and risk maps. Fire data products relating to fire detection and fire radiative power computation are attained from a dedicated SLSTR L2 algorithm. 18) 19)

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Landsat satellites have been collecting data on wildfires since the 1970s. Landsat data includes observations of fires, floods, rock avalanches, glacial lakes, droughts, and volcanic eruptions. The Operation Land Imager (OLI) and Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) provide seasonal coverage of the global landmass at a spatial resolution of 30 metres (visible, NIR, SWIR); 100 metres (thermal); and 15 metres (panchromatic). These can document location and extent of burnt areas, the severity of burning fires, and land regrowth following a fire. 20) 21)

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Figure 7: Satellite overpass times over Canada of Terra (dark green), Aqua (blue), Suomi NPP (purple), Sentinel-2 (orange), Sentinel-3 (light green), and Landsat 8 (pink). The orbit of WildFireSat is proposed to pass over Canada during peak burn period, providing important coverage at this time (Image credit: CFS).

GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites)-R

The GOES-R series, operated by NOAA in collaboration with NASA, provides advanced imagery and atmospheric measurements, real-time mapping of lightning activity, and monitoring of solar activity and space weather in the Earth’s Western Hemisphere. Three geostationary satellites, divided into GOES East and GOES West, provide coverage of over half the globe, providing images up to every 30 seconds. 22)

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CALIPSO (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation)

As a NASA and CNES (Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales) led mission, CALIPSO attained unprecedented scientific measurements of the vertical structure of the Earth’s atmosphere for 17 years, allowing improved understanding of the effects of aerosols from wildfire smoke or fossil fuels on the atmosphere, climate, and air quality. The satellites carried three co-aligned nadir-viewing instruments: CALIOP, an Imaging Infrared Radiometer (IIR), and a Wide Field Camera (WFC).  23) 24) 

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SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity)

Launched 2 November 2009, ESA’s SMOS makes global observations of land soil moisture and ocean salinity. Using SMOS data, areas of high fire risk can be detected at a rate of 87%. 25) 26)


1) “Wildfire Pilot,”, CEOS, URL: 

2) Pausas J.G., Keeley J.E. (2019) Wildfires as an Ecosystem Service; Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment; Vol. 17, issue 5, pp. 289-295, URL: 

3) “WildFireSat: Enhancing Canada’s Ability to Manage Wildfires,” Government of Canada, 17 May 2023, URL: 

4) “NASA Covers Wildfires Using Many Sources,” NASA, 9 December 2021, URL: 

5) “‘Freaks on the Peaks’: the Lonely Lives of the Last Remaining Forest Fire Lookouts,” The Guardian, 30 August 2016, URL: 

6) “Tracking Global Wildfires,” ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts), URL:,-Measuring%20fire%20intensity&text=CAMS%20provides%20global%20maps%20of,Global%20Fire%20Assimilation%20System%20%E2%80%93%20GFAS

7) “Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS),” GWIS, URL: 

8) “Questions & Answers Session Part 6,” Satellite Observations and Tools for Fire Risk, Detection, and Analysis, 11-27 May 2021, URL:

9) “Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS),” European Comission, URL:

10) “Seasonal Trend for Europe,” GWIS, URL:

11) “Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) US/Canada,” URL:;@-95.5,38.5,4z

12) “,” URL:,2023090300,39.018,25.148,7,m:eNNagTP

13) “MODIS | Terra,” NASA, 31 August 2023, URL:

14) “MODIS (or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer),” NASA, URL: 

15) “NPP Mission Overview,” NASA, 4 March 2020, URL:

16) “Sentinel Overview,” ESA, URL:

17) “Sentinels Detect and Monitor Forest Fires,” ESA, 28 April 2017, URL:

18) “Sentinel-3,” ESA, 25 January 2022, URL:

19) “Fire Location and Fire Radiative Power,” ESA, URL:


21) “Landsat’s Critical Role in Managing Forest Fires,” NASA, URL:

22) “Geostationary Satellies,” NOAA, URL:

23) “About CALIPSO OVERVIEW,” NASA, 28 August 2023, URL:

24) “About CALIPSO CALIPSO PAYLOAD,” NASA, 28 August 2023, URL:

25) “SMOS; ESA’s Water Mission” ESA, URL:

26) “SMOS Sings the Song of Ice and Fire,” ESA, 2 July 2015, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (