Every year, several hundred million hectares of forest, grasslands, and other types of vegetation burn throughout the world, and this amount is set to increase due to climate change. Wildfires pose a challenge for ecosystem management because they can be both harmful—threatening human life, property, economic activity and contributing to climate change—and beneficial—by regulating plant succession and fuel accumulation, affecting populations of insects and diseases, influencing nutrient cycles, and in many other ways we still struggle to understand.
Fires produce electromagnetic effects that can be detected with the use of remote sensing techniques. Remote sensing as applied for fire prevention and management involves three sets of variables: the phases of a fire (pre-fire conditions, active fire, post-fire burn area), the sensors (optical, thermal infrared, lidar, radar, and microwave—which can be satellite-based, airborne, or ground-based), and the key variables to be estimated and mapped (vegetation type, topography, ground fuel, and weather, especially wind speed and direction). Before a fire, remote sensing helps with risk analysis, mitigation, and prevention planning; once a fire starts, it helps to detect it and with incident response and management; after a fire, it helps to map burnt areas. Each sensor has its strengths and weaknesses. The best solution is often a combination of two or more sensors and of space-based or airborne remote sensing with ground-based surveys.
In response to last year’s devastating High Park wildfire, in Colorado, scientists from the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University (CSU) began to lead a large-scale wildfire impact study in partnership with a new research facility, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), based in Boulder, Colorado. NEON intends to build 60 sites across the United States that will gather and synthesize continental‐scale data over 30 years on the impacts of climate change, land use change, and invasive species on natural resources and biodiversity and make it freely available in near real-time to scientists, educators, students, decision makers, and the public.