“We probably can’t hold—it’s coming over—we are abandoning the task!” a firefighter radioed in at 11:33am on Sunday, October 20, 1991, as the Oakland Hills were engulfed in flames. As winds picked up and the blaze spread from house to house, firefighters who had been battling the fire suddenly had to battle simply to survive.
One lieutenant and a firefighter took shelter in a swimming pool, and only stuck their heads out intermittently to splash water over the pool’s cover, to keep it from being set aflame. Another team waited it out by a water tank, spraying a perimeter around their position as the inferno raged past them. While first responders tried to evacuate civilians from buildings, many of those who were killed were unable to escape due to the traffic jams in the tight, narrow roadways leading up through the hills.
By the time firefighters were able to put out the blaze, what would eventually be known as the 1991 Oakland firestorm had killed 25 people and injured 150, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also caused $1.5 billion in property loss and other damages, the most from a single fire in US history.
Now, a team of University of California, Berkeley scientists believes it may have the answer to preventing such destruction: a satellite that can see fires from space.
Known as the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, or “FUEGO”, the satellite would use infrared sensors to detect fires as small as one quarter of an acre in size and could scan the entire Western US in under three minutes, researchers said.
Currently, fires can burn for days—or even longer—in some areas before they are detected, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The satellite would have the greatest impact in these more remote areas.
“Most fires are seen by humans by chance,” said Dr. Carlton Pennypacker, one of the authors of the FUEGO study and a research associate at Berkeley. “The Oakland fire was smoldering for hours, but we could have seen it instantly. And the Rim Fire we could have gotten to very quickly as well.”
If it were created, FUEGO would be the only satellite dedicated specifically to fires, and the only one capable of rapidly spotting blazes down to the scale of a single house. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has access to a different satellite, it is primarily used to monitor weather and its sensors aren’t powerful enough to detect fires on that small of a scale. Another system is used by the US Forest Service, but it can only sense wildfires one square kilometer or larger, and scans the Western US just once every one to two days.
Proponents argue that FUEGO could be a vital tool for fighting wildfires, which have been a growing problem in California and across the US for the past several decades. Over the past five years, an average of more than 74,000 individual fires have occurred annually nationwide, burning a total of about 6.5 million acres per year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Most fires are reported by civilians who call them in on their cell phones, though occasionally state fire officials will put fire spotters in towers during the critical months.
The problem with this approach, Pennypacker said, is that it relies too much on chance, meaning that fires can get dangerously large before first responders are alerted. In the case of the Rim Fire, he noted, it “must have taken hours and hours to be seen by humans.”
In fact, the Rim Fire was only discovered when a plane responding to a separate fire nearby happened to spot it. When the report of the blaze was called in at 3:25pm on August 17, the fire was already 40 acres. By the time first responders got there, at 4pm, it had more than tripled in size, to 150 acres, and had become virtually unstoppable as it flowed over the surrounding dry, hilly terrain.
But not everyone believes the FUEGO satellite, which would likely cost several hundred million dollars, is necessary given how quickly most fires are detected. Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief for CAL FIRE, notes that even a very small fire—say one-quarter of an acre—can put up a large amount of smoke for passers-by to see. And the spread of cell phones has also helped.
“Twenty years ago, if someone saw a fire, they would have to drive 20 minutes or an hour to find a landline and call it in,” Hutchinson said. “Now, people can report fires instantly.”
Once a fire is reported, officials say, response time varies from three minutes to half an hour depending on how remote the location is.
Justin Anderson, a seasonal firefighter for CAL FIRE in the Tahoe Basin, agreed with Hutchinson that while a satellite would be an interesting tool, it may not be necessary given how quickly most fires are reported, and how rapidly firefighters are able to respond.
Nevertheless, he thought that FUEGO might help by reducing the number of false alarms. “Sometimes people just start up a lawn mower that hasn’t been used in a while, and it puts up a lot of smoke,” he said. “Or sometimes people will call in smoke from smoke stacks. We get a lot of calls like that.”
While researchers believe that the satellite could help keep many small fires from becoming larger, they remain divided on the question of whether the satellite would have made a difference in the 1991 Oakland firestorm.
“Certainly if the 1991 Oakland fire could have been seen long before it became critical, a billion dollars of house infrastructure in the Bay Area might have been saved,” the Berkeley scientists write in their study. But a report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency evaluating the causes of the firestorm states that local firefighters were aware of the blaze from the start. After being notified, they fought the fire for an afternoon but abandoned efforts overnight because because the fire had been reduced to embers. The result of this, however, was that Diablo winds came in the next morning and whipped the fire’s embers into flames once more.
Apart from the fact that the fire was allowed to smolder, the report also noted that the firefighters’ response was hampered by overwhelmed radio frequencies, compatibility issues with outside fire companies hooking up to fire hydrants, and the winding roadways that delayed fire trucks – none of which the satellite could have prevented.
Despite this, a number of local firefighters were enthusiastic about the possibility of developing a faster and more accurate way to spot fires. “If we have a system to detect gunshots, then we don’t we have something like this?” said Dave Espino, a 15-year veteran of the Oakland Fire Department. “Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t been built yet.”
Sean Gascie, a fire lieutenant at Station 8 in Temescal, added that FUEGO might be able to help with pinpointing the location of fires, and thereby help firefighters get to the scene more quickly.
“A lot of times we get called up to the hills for a report of smoke, and we have to drive around for five or ten minutes trying to find it,” he said. “Just a few weeks ago, we had one where the people reporting it told us to go to totally the wrong spot. When we got there, we couldn’t see fire or smell smoke at all.” The team then returned to the fire station, thinking it had been a false report, only to be called to respond to the fire again in a completely different area.
Once firefighters are alerted, it usually takes only three to five minutes to get to the scene, Espino said, provided it is reported accurately.
“It’s hard to find locations, especially out in the hills,” he added. “We’ll get a lot of different reports of smoke. So then we’ll have to send out multiple companies and have them driving around to different spots trying to find it.” With a satellite, Espino and Gascie hope local firefighters could be given a more exact location.
In practice, however, FUEGO is still a long way from becoming a reality. The next step for scientists will be to build a prototype and start raising money for the real thing. If approved, the project would likely take seven years—or longer—to complete.
Despite the challenges, Pennypacker remained optimistic. “I’m pretty confident it will eventually get built,” he said. “The planet and the galaxy should have this.”