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A Single Satellite Image Couldn't Capture All of the Fort McMurray Fire

Data scientists want the images to capture the spread of the fire since its inception.

by Emiko Jozuka
May 17 2016, 2:50pm

An infrared satellite image of the Fort McMurray fire from 12 May 2016. Image: Landsat/Orbital Insight

Data scientists attempting to capture the spread of Canada's Fort McMurray fire from satellite images taken from 705 km above Earth have discovered a sobering fact: A single satellite shot couldn't capture the entirety of the blaze (at the time the image was taken on 12 May).

By imaging the fire's spread from space, the researchers are helping to chart its pathway and aid first responders and the Canadian government in making targeted decisions on where their resources should be allocated.

Geospatial big data company Orbital Insight charted the Fort McMurray fire's pathway on 3, 4, 5, and 12 May.

Its most recent image, taken on 12 May at 11:28 AM local time in Alberta, depicts how the fire has spread beyond the limits of the area captured by government Landsat satellites. To make the 118 x 95 km image above and capture the entirety of the fire, Orbital Insight had to combine two satellite images taken 24 seconds apart.

A short wave infrared satellite image of the Fort McMurray fire from 5 May 2016. Image: Landsat/Orbital Insight

Each of the two satellites used can take images in the visible wavelength, and also possess different detectors that allow them to capture near-infrared images. Steven Bickerton, a data scientist from Orbital Insight, said that the most informative images were those taken in short wave infrared.

"The colouring is interesting because the fire shows up bright red. The brown regions are the areas that have already burned, and around the edges you see little orange and red dots that show the advancing fronts of the fire," said Bickerton over the phone.

Orbital Insight is not alone in capturing satellite images of the fire. DigitalGlobe recently released a series of high resolution infrared satellite images that gave details on individual cars and buildings. Such images, said Bickerton, provide a narrow field of vision, whereas Landsats focuses on showing a broader overview of the area affected—which lets viewers witness the scope of the fire's destruction in a single frame.

A satellite image of the Fort McMurray fire on 5 May 2016. Image: Landsat/Orbital Insight

"The resolution in each of our Landsat pixels is 30 metres across—it's about 80 times the size of the DigitalGlobe imagery. We are able to show the entire firefront in a single image," said Bickerton. "This makes it easier in terms of locating spot fires."

As of Monday 16 May, the Fort McMurray fire spanned 285,000 hectares. As it stands, new wildfires are starting in Canada's north and 12,000 people have been urged to evacuate Canada's oil sands camps near blaze-hit town of Fort McMurray. Orbital Insight will continue to track the blaze from space, and explore ways they can assist first responders in the event of similar natural disasters.