How has NASA helped save firefighters?

Eyes in the Sky

This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite shows the Zaca Fire in Santa Barbara County, Calif., Aug. 5, 2007.
This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite shows the Zaca Fire in Santa Barbara County, Calif., Aug. 5, 2007.

In 2003, NASA developed software for its satellites that could scan the Earth for potential forest fires. If the software on one satellite found a potential fire, it could then direct a more powerful satellite to take a closer look and warn humans if the situation warranted. Being able to locate forest fires in such an automatic way gives firefighters a leg up on building threats and a chance to put out the threat before it becomes too big [source: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center].

Remote-controlled Predator drones became famous for stealthy attacks in mountainous areas, but NASA has a version of one called "Ikhana," which means "intelligent" in the Choctaw language. Technically, it's a Predator B drone, but instead of being outfitted with Hellfire missiles, it's loaded with remote-sensing equipment.

In 2007, this drone helped fight one of the largest fires in California history -- the Zaca Fire -- by flying around and mapping the edge of the fire, which other planes couldn't see through the heavy smoke [source: Saillant]. The Ikhana has continued to assist with wildfire suppression efforts since then [source: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center].

Knowing where a wildfire's fire line is can definitely save lives, but better still would be to predict where a fire is most likely to start before firefighters put their lives on the line. Landsat 7, prepared and launched by NASA and operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, sizes up the moisture levels in forested areas across the country. By spotting the driest spots, NASA is helping to keep dangerous fires from getting started at all [source: NASA Science News].

The technology transfers received from NASA continue to reap benefits for firefighters, whether the fire is a burning house or a blazing forest. So the next time you see a firefighter in action, no matter where you are, you're probably watching some space-age technology at work.

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