Fired Up for Radar

Earthzine2015 Spring VPS, DEVELOP Virtual Poster Session, Responding to Natural Disasters and Environmental Changes

Category: Responding to Natural Disasters and Environmental Changes

Project Team: California Disasters

Team Location: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Pasadena, California

UAVSAR radar image of the burn scar from the Grand Fire in Lebec, California, May 2013. Yellow indicates highest and orange indicates lowest burn severity. Image Credit: California Disasters Team


Christine Rains

Jerry Heo

Erika Higa


Dr. Sang-ho Yun (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Dr. Mark Simons (California Institute of Technology)

Brent Minchew (California Institute of Technology)


In the last few years, the intensification of wildfire occurrence and extent in drought-stricken California has added urgency to the need for efficient and accurate fire monitoring and assessment to prevent losses that can amount to millions of dollars in property destruction and emergency services for displaced individuals. To that end, the California Disasters team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory partnered with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to examine the potential of using NASA’s Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) instrument during active fires and for post-fire assessment. Currently, thermal imagery derived from the National Infrared Operation (NIROPS) is used for limited active-fire support, while Landsat differenced Normalized Burn Ratio (dNBR) scenes supplement field measurements for post-fire severity assessments. Landsat remote-sensing methods have significant spatial (30 m) and temporal resolution (every 16 days) limitations, while on-site data collection is labor-intensive and time-consuming. NASA’s UAVSAR instrument, currently mounted on a Gulfstream III airplane, uses a smoke- and cloud-penetrating L-band radar sensitive to vegetation to create high-resolution imagery (~ 5 m spatial resolution) of changes in vegetative structure during and after fires. The team examined fires that occurred across the spectrum of California vegetation and terrain types and analyzed the ability of the UAVSAR sensor to detect burn scars within those conditions. The results demonstrated that UAVSAR radar imagery can be a powerful and accurate tool for post-fire severity mapping, and indicate that it is a promising tool for active fire response.

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