Mapping Wildfire Movement

Caitlin Dempsey


Researchers are using a new system that consolidates data collected from two satellites in order to track wildfire movement, fire perimeter, and intensity. The Fire Events Data Suite (FEDS) is an advancement in the field of fire monitoring that originated from a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Fire Events Data Suite uses satellite data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensors onboard both NASA’s Suomi NPP (National Polar-orbiting Partnership) satellite and the NOAA-20 satellite. The VIIRS sensor detects active fires both during daytime and nighttime by capturing the thermal infrared energy emitted. By using information collected from both of these satellites, wildfire data can be collected every 12 hours. In comparison, using Landsat satellites to track a wildfire can result in a gap in data collection up to 16 days in between observations of a fire.

Near real-time satellite wildfire tracking

FEDS uses an algorithm developed by a team led by UC Irvine researchers (Chen et al., 2022) that enhances fire spread models by providing accurate information about current wildfire activity, expansion, active fire front, and behavior as well as providing data about near-real-time wildfire emissions.

A picture of a forest with fire burning along the forest floor and a foil wrapped building in the background.
Near real-time fire mapping can help fire crews target the active fronts of remote wildfires. Photo: NPS, public domain.

With the development of satellite technology, researchers have been increasingly relying on remotely sensed data to supplement field and aerial data collected during active wildfires. According to the authors of the research paper on FEDS, many of these satellite-based observations were limited in two ways. First, the observations tended to be done in isolation – each wildfire was mapped without consideration of the interrelationship with other wildfires. Second, this data was often limited by gaps in data due to the time between satellite passes and interference from clouds or smoke.

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Benefits of the Fire Events Data Suite

The development of this fire behavior mapping algorithm has several benefits over other remote sensing fire mapping. Yang Chen, the lead author on the paper noted to NASA, “The thing that really sets FEDS apart is that the system excels at tracking the daily, incremental spread of fires at 12-hour intervals. That makes near real-time monitoring possible and allows us to generate much more detailed views of fire progression than we have been able to do in the past.”

Another benefit pointed out by Douglas Morton, a scientist with the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is that FEDS can be used by fire crews to determine which areas of a wildfire, especially in areas that are remote or inaccessible by aircraft, are most actively burning and in need of targeting.

Analyzing past fire behavior

A grayscale map on a black background of California showing the perimeter of two wildfires.
Map showing the location and extent of the Dixie and Caldor wildfires in California using data from FEDS. The Dixie wildfire, located in northern California, became the state’s largest single source wildfire in recorded history, burning an area slightly larger than Rhode Island over 100 days between July and October 2021. The Caldor wildfire, east of Sacramento, was the second fire in the state’s history to traverse the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lasting for more than 80 days, it passed through the El Dorado National Forest and posed threats to the communities of Meyers and South Lake Tahoe. Map: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, 2021, public domain.

While the applications of this fire mapping algorithm has benefits for real-time current wildfire mapping, the authors of the FEDS algorithm study looked at historic fire data for California between 2012 and 2020. The historical perspective allowed the researchers to analyze patterns in fire behavior over the eight years of satellite data.

Yang Chen pointed out to NASA that “Many of those fires showed quite uneven growth overall, with explosive rates of growth occurring during the first several days after ignition.” Understanding what drives this explosive growth can help refine risk models for future fires in an increasingly flammable world.”

Using fire data to track Canada’s wildfires

NASA scientists used the FEDS algorithm to map the day-by-day spread of wildfires during the 2023 Canada wildfire season.

The expansive woodland and forest areas in Canada’s boreal zone are susceptible to seasonal wildfires due to their warm, dry summers. These annual wildfires function as natural disturbances that aid in the regeneration of the boreal forest. Under regular circumstances, these fires play a beneficial role by liberating nutrients trapped in the forest floor and creating openings in the canopy for new seedlings to sprout. The wildfire season in Canada usually spans from May to September. The melting of snow in early May exposes dead plant matter, serving as fuel to ignite wildfires.

Driven in part by climate change, the 2023 wildfire season in Canada was record-breaking with 18.4 million hectares burned in comparison with the 2.5 million hectare average that typically burns each year. Lightning triggered many of these fires over the summer that burned for months in remote areas of Canada.

A labeled satellite image showing smoke and fire from a wildfire in Alberta, Canada on May 6, 2023.
A satellite image showing smoke and fire from wildfires in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada on May 6, 2023. Image: NASA Terra Satellite.

What factored into the much higher than average amount of area that burned in Canada in 2023 was the number of megafires. Megafires are generally defined as wildfires that burn more than 10,000 hectares. Hundreds of the more than 6,595 wildfires that have burned in Canada in 2023 so far exceeded 10,000 hectares. The largest wildfire was one that burned 1,224,938 hectares (4,730 square miles) in Quebec near the La Grande Reservoir 3.

NASA used FEDS to map the behavior of several fires in Canada, showing the spread of the individual fire perimeters and the total area burned. In the video below, the first animation shows the spread of the wildfire in Quebec in 12-hour increments since June 1, 2023. The second animation shows the growth of several wildfires burning in Canada’s British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Alberta, and Saskatchewan provinces.


Chen, Y., Hantson, S., Andela, N., Coffield, S. R., Graff, C. A., Morton, D. C., … & Randerson, J. T. (2022). California wildfire spread derived using VIIRS satellite observations and an object-based tracking system. Scientific data9(1), 249.

Voiland, A. (2023, October 25). Tracking Canada’s extreme 2023 fire season. NASA Earth Observatory.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.