India is rolling out a satellite-based system in the thick of the fire season that allows users to track the spread of forest fires on their phones.

The Forest Fire Alerts System 3.0 (FAST) builds on long-standing cooperation between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization known as ISRO.

While tracking natural events via satellites is a well-established strategy, the system rolled out earlier this year adds value by reaching the most remote corners of India using a simple text messaging alert and is the first of its kind, said E. Vikram, a deputy director with the government agency Forest Survey of India.

Controlling fires on the ground in developing countries can be especially difficult as local forest departments often don’t have access to the technologies needed to monitor satellite feeds on the ground, said an official with ISRO, who spoke on condition of anonymity during a workshop.

With the new system, rangers on patrol and other subscribers in 20 states receive an alert on their phone with a fire’s coordinates in less than two hours from the time the satellite passes over India.

NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, an instrument on the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership spacecraft, transmits near real-time data to a main base in the city of Hyderabad, where they are analyzed to map out all the fires burning at any given time.

Pocket-Size Alerts

The thermal sensors on the satellites are highly sensitive and can detect even small fires, the official said.

“Someplace on Earth is always burning,” said Douglas Morton, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington. “Satellite fire detections and burned area mapping give us a global vantage point on fire in the Earth system, including wildfires and intentional burning in areas of agriculture, forestry, and forest management.”

Most fires in India are small and started by humans for agricultural management, he added.

“This is where higher resolution active fire detections are particularly valuable, as numerous small cropland fires contribute to air quality concerns across the country during the dry season,” he said.

Vikram said also is important to be able to identify large fires so that more effort can be put into fighting them before they become too large to control.

The scientists identify and name each fire based on the area where it is detected and follow its development, analyzing six data sets produced by the sensors every 24 hours.

“So the fire can literally be tracked through the day as it moves,” Vikram said.

Human-Made Disasters

The fire season in India lasts from winter to summer, and each region has different weather and agricultural practices, Vikram said.

“In recent years the frequency of dry years has been increasing, and the monsoons have become less predictable,” he added. Improved early warning signs will be important as the weather become more unpredictable.

“While the science is still very uncertain, there is extensive literature warning about future weather patterns,” said Kiran Pandey, program director at the Environment Resources Unit of the Centre for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy center in New Delhi.

“For example, a recent report by the World Bank and the Environment Ministry warns that forest fires in India might increase in the coming years because of extreme weather events triggered by climate change.”

This, she said, adds to other human-made stressors such as deforestation.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also says that by the end of the century most of India’s dry forests are projected to experience climate conditions beyond what they can tolerate,” she said.