AT 10 AM on Friday, May 15, wildland fire season kicked off in California. Officials from the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, and a few other agencies gathered at the Kern County Fire Department Headquarters in Bakersfield to, if not celebrate, at least observe the moment. Everyone knew they were looking at a rough year. The ongoing western drought will make sure of that.
Now, a team of researchers believes they may be able to help. The idea is to enable early location and identification of fires using drones, planes, and satellites mounted with special infrared cameras. They’re calling it the Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit—or Fuego—and once fully operational the system could spot new wildfires anywhere in the Western US barely three minutes after they start. “All year round is going to be fire season now,” says Carlton Pennypacker, an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley and lead researcher on Fuego. “That makes this more urgent.”