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What satellite infrastructure would be necessary to detect wildfires early enough to prevent the disaster in Australia from repeating? Is that possible at all given variable cloud cover? If so, does that infrastructure already exist?

What about scaling that to all areas on Earth prone to large scale wildfires?

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  • $\begingroup$ check out the BIRD and the FUEGO programs 1, 2, 3, 4. These were initiated almost two decades ago, not sure about their current status. $\endgroup$ – Everyday Astronaut Jan 18 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think detection is the problem, I think it would be accessing the fires quickly enough to be able to do anything useful. Also, many are started by lightning, so will tend to be under cloud cover. $\endgroup$ – Steve Linton Jan 18 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly worth adjusting the question wording, are you interested in the capability to go 'yup, that forest is on fire', which exists but has limitations or the more interesting question of 'could satellites detect the period of smouldering that happens before it is a forest fire in time to usefully respond?'. $\endgroup$ – GremlinWranger Jan 19 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ Stopping all wildfires is not a good idea. In the pre-space era, the US Forest Service managed exactly that using a network of lookout towers, and the result was dense forests, thick debris layers on the forest floor, and exactly the sort of unstoppable large-scale fire they were trying to prevent. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 19 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark the question is about cases like the current “disaster“ and about “large scale wildfires“ $\endgroup$ – Everyday Astronaut Jan 20 at 8:03
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Back in the early 1990's we were asked to bid on a small satellite network to do this while I was working at AeroAstro. Our CTO and CEO ran the numbers and figured out it would be far more economical to build ground based fire sensors that would report via pager or cell data and distribute those instead. We did not win that proposal.

Fast forward to today's interest in IR sensors for tracking things of military interest and it's actually a big deal to try to figure out how to identify the things you care about instead of the small fires (campfires) scattered around the world. So, if the military were so inclined, the same global system that watches for militarily interesting things could be used to spot forest fires starting. In fact, with the modern data systems being proposed, it would just be a matter of designing a database query to periodically scrape the central database for small signals that grow past a certain limit to forward to the appropriate forestry agency.

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It's not possible. Under the conditions Australia has been experiencing, a fire can grow from ignition to an unstoppable firestorm in under an hour; in order to prevent this, you'd need not only a system that can spot lit matches, sparking power lines, and backfiring engines, you'd need a fire-response team that can reach the point of ignition in a matter of minutes.

As an example of the difficulties you'd be facing, attempts to fight the Kilmore East fire of the Black Sunday fires were abandoned less than 55 minutes after ignition.

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  • $\begingroup$ Exactly the use case for ballistic delivery of hypervelocity fire retardant dispensers :) . I doubt there's a firefighter alive who wouldn't want a repurposed guided missile launcher for their rig. $\endgroup$ – Terrance Yee Jan 22 at 1:48
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I think the technology already exist. Some fires get started because it is hot and the vegetation is dry, and for that we could use infrared cameras. Some others get started by a lightning bolt, and we could see with normal cameras places with electrical storms. And finally pyromaniacal people, who should be the most difficult to detect.

I am not aware about others ways for a fire to get started.

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    $\begingroup$ This does not really answer the question beyond 'I think the technology already exist'. Some sources on what already exists and the limitations on them are (refresh rate, resolution) would make it a better answer. $\endgroup$ – GremlinWranger Jan 19 at 7:45

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