I Built a Tool to Track Wildfires: This Is Why
Once or twice a year, I have a ritual of leaving the big city to return to my home village, in south-eastern Sicily. During these retreats, I have the chance to disconnect from the bustling, relentless Milano, and enjoy a place where industriousness isn't the only religion. Clean air, warmer temperatures, and chirping nightingales: in other words, I created my own flavour of the Roman otium to work peacefully and meditate on my next steps.
On a quiet morning like others, I was immersed in this idyllic setting and on the hunt for an elusive bug (in my software, not in my room), when I started to smell the foul odour of smoke. Instinctively, I inspected my electric appliances, but everything was in order. However, as soon as I heard a thunderous roar over my house, I sprinted outside on my terrace and saw a Canadair plane rushing north, in the direction of a national wildlife park in my area. High flames raged over the trees, just a couple of kilometers from me.
Fighting Against the Fire
I cheered for the small plane and its courageous pilot for a while, admiring its maneuvers around the flames, its frightening dives toward the fire, and its back-and-forth over the hills to the opposite side, wisely restoring its water reserves before resuming the fight. The struggle lasted all day, and the inferno was decimated only late at night.
In the end, no person was harmed due to that fire. However, in the aftermath buildings, countless trees, and wild animals were lost forever. A man managed to free some goats trapped inside a fence: other cattle in the whereabouts weren't so fortunate. The following morning, my terrace was covered in ashes and burnt pine needles: I realized I was helpless against this event.
There are many reasons that explain why a wildfire could start: a lightning strike, a loose power cable, or an uncontrolled campfire, for example. Wildfires are not necessarily evil: they are instead a necessary component of the life cycle of forests and help in cleaning up dead plants and other organic waste in the underbrush. In fact, limited fires or even man-made managed fires can be beneficial.
Unfortunately, in the last decades, there has been an insurgence of megafires, events that surpass in scale and duration ordinary wildfires, and that represent a threat to buildings, animals, and humans. Sadly, big fires are interlocked with climate change in a vicious loop: they destroy woods, freeing greenhouse gases and increasing the temperatures on the ground (trees are a useful heat screen).
Obviously, I am not the first one to worry about this issue. There is a plethora of solutions for monitoring fires on the ground, like advanced thermal cameras, smoke detectors, or the age-old visual inspection by foresters. Governments must be worried as well since systems such as Europe's Copernicus and MyFireWatch in Australia use satellite data to detect and monitor fires.
Fire Watching, From Space
To my delight, I found out that the cornerstone of satellite fire-tracking is often built upon data freely offered by NASA: what is most exciting is that the APIs for this information are open to anyone. In other words, the perfect setup for a new side-project!
Over roughly a weekend, I developed a simple app to monitor wildfires. It ingests data from two NASA satellites, Aqua and Terra, that orbit around the Earth every 6 hours each. This means that in about 3 hours, I have updated data about hotspots on the ground. I decided to focus on a limited geographical region at first, and eventually add more features as I understand what value it can bring.
The system is far from perfect, of course. It should not be used for monitoring active fires when the goal is the preservation of life or property. It is neither accurate nor timely enough to be safe. Moreover, some fires could go undetected if clouds or smoke block the satellite vision.
As we are in the middle of winter, the risk of wildfires is minimal, so I expect the dashboard to be blank for a while. I also realize that this is not enough to provide actionable solutions in case a fire is actually detected in the following months, but I felt I had to at least take a step in that direction.
I would like to learn more about this issue, so if you are a subject-matter expert in fire tracking and wildfire mitigation and you'd like to share an insight about this topic, please reach out to me!