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New Satellite Will Keep Watch Over California Wildfires

In March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched GOES-17, the second geostationary satellite meant to monitor the West Coast.

by Sophia Kunthara, San Francisco Chronicle / November 12, 2018

(TNS) — It hadn’t arrived by the time the Camp Fire began raging in Butte County, but high-tech help to monitor fires is on the way.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched the GOES-17 satellite in March, and it was traveling over the Gulf of Mexico as fires broke out in California. The satellite is expected to reach its final destination on the West Coast on Tuesday.

GOES-17, the second of a new series of NOAA’s geostationary satellites, is scheduled to be operational by Dec. 10, in time for next year’s wildfire season.

But until GOES-17 is operational, NOAA officials are turning to GOES-16, the satellite’s East Coast counterpart that was launched in December, to monitor the fires and provide support to fire officials in California.

GOES-17 will bring “the same advanced capabilities, but it will be positioned so it can give a better view of the West Coast,” National Weather Service Office of Observations Director Joe Pica said, adding that GOES-16 is seeing the fire at somewhat of an angle.

GOES-16 and GOES-17 both have an imager with four times the resolution, five times the update rate and triple the number of channels of older satellites. They have the ability to scan a small sector every minute — GOES-16’s sector is positioned to view Northern California to monitor the Camp Fire.

“We are able to see the fires at an earlier stage than we ever were before because of the increased resolution and the number of bands and increased update rate,” Pica said.

The capabilities of the satellites allow NOAA to combine situational awareness, like the extent of the fire, smoke and current wind patterns, and the agency’s ability to forecast wind shifts so officials know where to focus evacuation efforts and where firefighters need to go.

Information from the National Weather Service is critical because weather affects what the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection can do, said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire spokesman. Wind changes are the “most extreme” types of danger.

“The wind direction constantly changes, it causes extreme fire behavior,” McLean said. “The fire tornado is one extreme we had to deal with earlier this year.”

Older satellites could monitor weather, but only for larger-scale weather patterns. The GOES-16 and GOES-17 can zero in on specific areas and storms. The GOES-16 has been used to monitor hurricanes on the East Coast.

The Camp Fire broke out late last week and has killed at least nine people. The fire reached 90,000 acres, more than twice the size of San Francisco, by Friday night and thousands of people were evacuated.

Pollution from the fire reached San Francisco, which had poor air quality Friday.

Aclima, a San Francisco startup that tracks air quality, has sent out a few of its vehicles to drive around the Bay Area and map pollution on a hyper-local level, said Kimberly Hunter, the company’s vice president of communications and engagement.

The cars have a mobile node that has multiple sensors that measure a range of pollutants at the same time.

The technology helps track how the pollution is moving through the city. Aclima plans to release more updates this week.

©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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