Forest Fire

The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite captured this image of smoke from wildfires in the US state of California on 9 October 2017. Image: 	contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Definition

Wildfire, also called forest, bush or vegetation fire, can be described as any uncontrolled and non-prescribed combustion or burning of plants in a natural setting such as a forest, grassland, brush land or tundra, which consumes the natural fuels and spreads based on environmental conditions (e.g., wind, topography). Wildfire can be incited by human actions, such as land clearing, extreme drought or in rare cases by lightning (IRDR).

There are three conditions that need to be present in order for a wildfire to burn: fuel, oxygen, and a heat source. Fuel is any flammable material surrounding a fire, including trees, grasses, brush, even homes. The greater an area's fuel load, the more intense the fire. Air supplies the oxygen a fire needs to burn. Heat sources help spark the wildfire and bring fuel to temperatures hot enough to ignite. Lightning, burning campfires or cigarettes, hot winds, and even the sun can all provide sufficient heat to spark a wildfire (National Geographic).

Facts and figures

The Global Wildland Fire Network Bulletin published by the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) presents the most recent data regarding consequences of wildfire: in 2017, 36 fires in protected areas were recorded in 19 countries burning more than 196000 hectares worldwide.

Wildfire plays a mixed role for ecology and economy since some ecosystems depend on natural fires to maintaining their dynamics, biodiversity and productivity. However, every year, wildfires burn millions of hectares of forest woodlands and other vegetation, causing the loss of many human and animal lives and an immense economic damage, both in terms of resources destroyed and the costs of suppression. There are also impacts on society and the environment, such as damage to human health from smoke, loss of biological diversity, release of  greenhouse gases, damage to recreational values and infrastructure (FAO).

Most fires are caused by people. The list of human motivations include land clearing and other agricultural activities, maintenance of grasslands for livestock management, extraction of non-wood forest products, industrial development, resettlement, hunting, negligence and arson. Only in very remote areas of Canada and the Russian Federation lightning is a major cause of fires (FAO).

There are three basic types of wildfires:

  • Crown fires burn trees up their entire length to the top. These are the most intense and dangerous wildland fires.
  • Surface fires burn only surface litter and duff. These are the easiest fires to put out and cause the least damage to the forest.
  • Ground fires (sometimes called underground or subsurface fires) occur in deep accumulations of humus, peat and similar dead vegetation that become dry enough to burn. These fires move very slowly, but can become difficult to fully put out, or suppress (Government of Canada).

Related content

Actualités

Sustainable use of groundwater during the dry season is crucial for paddy farming in Saptari, Nepal. Image: ICIMOD

According to a recent report published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), space-based information can play a key role in the monitoring of agricultural droughts and forest fires. The "Building Mountain Resilience: Solutions from the Hindu Kush Himalaya" report examines the changing problems facing the Himalayan region of South Asia and highlights the potential for technologies, including space-based applications, to inform communities, practitioners, decision-makers and governments alike, and build more resilient mountain communities.

The "Building... read more

Publishing date: 15/08/2018
Smoke and fires in Nepal. Image: NASA (2016).

In Nepal, SERVIR-Hindu Kush Himalaya at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a UN-SPIDER Regional Support Office (RSO), has been working in close collaboration with the Department of Forests of Nepal to develop a satellite-based forest fire detection and monitoring system. The system uses Earth observation data with large-area... read more

Publishing date: 06/07/2018
Logo of the International Charter "Space and Major Disasters"

The International Charter Space and Major Disasters has been activated for forest fires in China on 4 June.

Wildfires have broken out in the mountainous region of the northern Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. A prolonged period of high temperatures and dry conditions fuelled the forest fires, which have spread to over 5,000 hectares due to high winds.

Strong and changing winds have made firefighting treacherous and over 4,000 people have been deployed to tackle the fires.

The Charter activation request was made by the National Disaster Reduction Center of China and the project managers will be the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the National Disaster Reduction Centre of China (NDRCC).

Publishing date: 05/06/2018

Data Source

Publishing institution: European Space Agency (ESA)
The main objective of the SENTINEL-3 mission is to monitor sea and land surface temperature, sea surface topography and ocean and land surface colour with high accuracy and reliability. The high resolution data is meant to support ocean forecasting systems, environmental monitoring and climate monitoring. ESA and EUMETSAT will jointly operate the SENTINEL-3 mission and bothy institutions provide access to the processed data. Sentinel 3 carries four main instruments: the OLCI, SLSTR, Altimetry and a MWR Microwave Radiometer.
Publishing institution: VITO
The Proba-Vegetation mission provides information on vegetation, including crop yield and drought, based on PROBA-V and Sentinel-3 data.

UN-SPIDER Training Activity

Remote sensing techniques and UN-SPIDER Recommended Practices on drought and burn severity mapping | Date of training: 31/07/2017 to 02/08/2017

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