Mapping Australia’s Bushfires

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Disaster monitoring using GIS tools has been long-utilized. Now, as the recent Australian bushfires highlight, monitoring wildfires using spatial tools and data is of great importance not only to life and property but also to be able to understand how global change will affect such events in the future.

Online tools have been created that allow near real-time monitoring and collection of data for forecasting where fires may go.

Monitoring Australia’s wildfires with geospatial tools

Near real-time tools are being applied to monitor the Australian fires. Such tools are able to show you what is currently happening but also allow for a historical and comparative perspective to see past fire burn areas.  


MyFireWatch tool is an example of a tool that can do this.  

This tool is sponsored by the Australian government in collaboration with and Edith Cowan University. The web map allows citizens as well as scientists to monitor progress and change in fires over different spatial and time scales.

The tool uses satellite imagery, mostly obtained every few hours, which means the data are within 2-4 hours of real-time events. Accuracy is within 2 km of hotspots mapped (and 5km at the fire perimeters) which is useful for an overview of where fires are occurring.

MyFireWatch lets users see where fire hotspots are occurring as well as historic burn areas from the past two years.
MyFireWatch lets users see where fire hotspots are occurring as well as historic burn areas from the past two years.

Digital Earth Hotspots Australia

Similar to MyFireWatch, Digital Earth Hotspots Australia allows users to monitor near real-time events.  

The online map tools also allows users to layer data, including vegetation or built-up data, to enable one to monitor where the path of active fires may go next and the hazards associated with this.

For this web site, data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellite mission is used by Australia’s government to monitor fires and environment-related events. This data utilizes different sensors such as thermal MODIS sensors, while allowing topography and landcover to be mapped in assessments.

Screenshot of Digital Earth Hotspots Australia.
Digital Earth Hotspots Australia

NASA’s WorldView

NASA’s WorldView allows not only monitoring of Australia but also fire events world-wide. Data from different sensors, including thermal and multispectral bands, can be layered and mapped in near real-time.

Users can animate a global perspective to see how fires have expanded or contracted in recent hotspots such as the Amazon and Australia. Thermal monitoring is possible from MODIS instruments on the Terra and Aqua satellites.

NASA has also created the Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS).  

The web map uses data from MODIS and VIIRS, which are sensors that complement MODIS and improve spatial resolution, to enable near real-time fire monitoring. This allows resource and other safety managers to monitor fire activity and also plan for events based on the latest forecasts and progression of fire using different weather and other instruments.

The FIRMS system is intended to detect remote and even relatively small fires through their heat signatures, making the system ideal as a resource for detecting small firs in Australia and elsewhere that may contribute to the larger fires occurring.

NASA's Worldview for mapping and monitoring global fires.
NASA’s Worldview for mapping and monitoring global fires.

Other wildfire monitoring tools

Other tools have been created for wildfire monitoring, assessment, and threat detection in general. These have been applied for emergency and disaster response and integrate social media with map or satellite-based data to enable a rapid understanding of events.

In fact, one benefit is social media data can be faster to obtain than satellite-based data, thereby giving more up-to-date information for responders, while also capturing different types of information. In one such application, social media data can help to anticipate resilience in communities by monitoring how well people are prepared for events or even aware.

Sentiment about events can be measured to monitor what people perceive about the event.[1] For the recent Australia bushfires, the use of social media has been prevalent, although it is not clear how much of that data have been applied for disaster response.

The Australian bushfires are the latest in a now increasingly growing number of larger fires. The Australian bushfires are not new, as annually Australia experiences similar events, but they are relatively exceptional in scale and scope.

Monitoring the degree and threat level of such disasters are likely to be important in coming years. Satellite-based tools, such as those used by Australia or developed by NASA, have great utility in monitoring existing fires while giving the public near real-time monitoring.

However, fires can also be complex and monitoring how well communities respond and prepare, while also monitoring the fires, may require the integration of social media and other forms of data that enable a rapid awareness of events.


[1]    For more on using social media for disaster response and resilience, see:  Zou, L., Lam, N.S.N., Shams, S., Cai, H., Meyer, M.A., Yang, S., Lee, K., Park, S.-J., Reams, M.A., 2019. Social and geographical disparities in Twitter use during Hurricane Harvey. International Journal of Digital Earth 12, 1300–1318.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.