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Using Bots, Twitter to Watch Wildfires

A company in Santa Fe, N.M., is using a Twitter bot and satellite imaging to monitor wildfire activity.

by Sami Edge, The Santa Fe New Mexican / July 23, 2018

(TNS) — From 22,000 miles above the Earth, the last day of May seemed relatively normal in Colfax County, N.M.

Fluffy white clouds, like oddly shaped polka-dots, migrated across the Mora County line, but the arid brown desert and swaths of darker-colored forests were easily visible through what must have been a big, blue sky down below.

As the afternoon progressed, though, a thin line of white smoke started to climb skyward, just north of N.M. 64. Satellite video shows the plume growing wider and wider, eventually blanketing the northeastern corner of the county and crossing well into Colorado by the early morning of June 1.

So went the start of the Ute Park Fire, which burned more than 36,000 acres near the town of Cimarron earlier this year.

Santa Fe based Descartes Labs last week unveiled satellite videos and infrared footage of Ute Park and dozens of other fires around the country, demonstrating its new Wildfire Watch system — a Twitter bot called @WildfireSignal.

“This tool could help folks who are dealing with wildfire in their community,” explained Caitlin Kontgis, technical lead for Descartes’ applied science team.

Employees at Descartes, a satellite imaging firm, were inspired to do something that could help during natural disasters after watching the destruction left by Hurricane Harvey last fall, Kontgis said. They decided to focus their efforts on mapping wildfires since many of them had personal experience with fire disasters in California, or at Los Alamos.

The bot will publish new video and infrared images of ongoing wildfires every six hours. Already the Twitter feed has thousands of posts up, showing snippets of burns from Washington state to New Mexico.

Kontgis’ team hopes these visualizations can help the public track wildfires and their smoke — an advantage when trying to determine where and when to flee, or to help people keep an eye on whether a fire is approaching.

“Just visually, data like this we realized is incredibly powerful,” Kontgis said.

For example, Kontgis said, another employee at Descartes Lab described how the app could have been useful when his family was evacuated from a fire zone in California. They have a young child, Kontgis said, and wanted to flee from the smoke, but the smoke caught up to the town where they evacuated only a day later.

A map like this could show the public the general direction smoke is traveling, so people can better avoid it. The infrared technology also can spot and map fires overnight when visual tools aren’t as effective, she said.

Kontgis said it’s not the place of Descartes programmers to give people advice related to fires, but they’re hoping the tool can simply provide people objective information so they can be better informed.

“Being able to see [fire and smoke] movement provides more information when there really isn’t a lot of information coming,” Kontgis said. “We want to provide information to people and help them make their own decisions.”

The bot — software that is coded to run assigned tasks automatically — essentially finds information on new fires from InciWeb, the incident information system for wildfires published through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. It then identifies satellite imagery of the area where a fire has started. The bot then publishes infrared and video footage using hashtags like #UteParkFire that make the posts easy to search on the internet.

A new satellite called GOES-16 is a critical component of the nearly live feed, Kontgis said. Instead of orbiting like other satellites, GOES-16 stays in place over the Western Hemisphere and takes constant images of the United States. Descartes can compile nearly live images from that satellite and provide that feed to first responders.

However, they’re only tweeting the six-hour videos because of Twitter parameters, and because that makes the data easier to manage, Kontgis said.

The group’s ultimate goal is to program a computer to keep an eye on the infrared data, and create an alert system when a fire starts. The idea is to innovate a system that could help first responders get to the scene of a fire faster in hopes of preventing small fires from spreading.

That alert system probably would be exclusively for public safety agencies, Kontgis said, because Descartes wouldn’t want to start a panic over a fire that could just be a prescribed burn.

“We’re cognizant of the implications of releasing a tool like that,” Kontgis said.

In a post on the website, Descartes announced it had shared the technology with the Santa Fe National Forest in the hopes that it could help track and monitor fires.

However, Forest Service spokesman Bruce Hill said the agency doesn’t have use for the technology at the moment. Forest Geographic Information System coordinator Julie Luetzelschwab said the Forest Service already uses the GOES satellite system to keep an eye on fires in Northern New Mexico.

“We appreciate their offers; they do amazing work, I know,” Luetzelschwab said of the new Descartes product. “There’s so much new tech it’s hard to keep track of it all, but I know that the fire world here is using quite a bit of it.”

©2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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