Use of Remote Sensing to Improve Transportation Corridor Safety

Focus Area

Environmental Enhancements


Environmental Process






2-3 years

Research Idea Scope

Statement of Work (Objective) This research proposal is to support work on an often overlooked naturally occurring ecosystem fuel, organic soils and/or deep duffs. These fuels have posed a threat to transportation corridor safety when they ignite and continue to smolder. These ground fuels when sufficiently dry can sustain ignition and produce emissions that are 19 to 32 times that of surface fuels. Under the correct environmental conditions burning of organic fuels threaten transportation corridor safety due to reduced visibility as well as place at risk populations in downwind smoke sensitive areas as air quality is detrimentally impacted. Emitted fine particulates and water vapor can induce fog formation and potentially reduce visibility on highways to less than 10 feet. Visibility reduced to this level is known as a “Superfog”. When these naturally occurring ground fuels ignite via natural or anthropogenic means and sustain ignition, smoke emission can make their way to transportation corridors and threaten motorists safety as much as 10 miles away. This research will leverage already completed work on smoldering moisture content limits of organic soils, development of remote sensing ground stations (Estimated Smoldering Potential – ESP Fire Danger Stations), and fire weather intelligence. It will then determine if this can be correlated with soil moisture data that will be transmitted from NASA’s Soil Moisture Active and Passive satellite (SMAP) in order to predict with confidence when these ignited fuels in any region of the country will pose a threat and require mitigating actions. SMAP will be launched in the fall 2014. The requested funding will be used to complete the following specific tasks: 1) deployment, continued operation, and maintenance of remote ESP fire danger collection stations from selected sites in the north central lake and southeast states, 2) posting of ESP observed data on US Forest Service Wildland Fire Assessment System website, 3) development and availability of key fire weather information from the NWS, 4) assembly of several GEO-databases needed for analysis, 5) correlation of remote sensed satellite data with remote ground data, and 6) additional sampling and burn tests of organic soils from the unique geographic organic soil regions ( Alaska, North Central Lake States, Southeast Atlantic & Southern Gulf States) 7) Final Report and presentations at conferences / workshops by principal and co-investigator, respectively Gary Curcio IPA Fire Environmental Specialists, LLC and Jim Reardon US Forest Service Missoula Fire Lab. Using the baseline information generated from this project and existing GIS resources it will improve the ability to understand when these organic soils pose a threat to transportation corridor (ground and air) safety and public health through remotely sensed data. Currently no program provides the needed intelligence to evaluate ground fire potential in organic soils. The results of this work will improve decision support for Natural Resource, Transportation, Law Enforcement, and Emergency Response Agencies. Current decision support tool by natural resource agencies, National Fire Danger Rating System, does not provide information that can assist as to the availability of organic soils to ignite and burn. However, this project will afford the opportunity to evaluate the element of risk presented by these fuels.

Urgency and Payoff

Urgency / Background Organic soils associated with peat lands are recognized for their significant role in global carbon storage. Disturbance whether by fire, human activity or climate-induced has the potential to transform these areas from carbon sinks to potentially large sources of carbon release (1). The results of current climate change research highlights the increasing vulnerability of these soils. John Deeming (2), who led the national effort to develop the present day National Fire Danger System, identified the lack of fire danger assessment of organic soils and thick duff soil horizons as a major shortcoming to be addressed in the future. At the time of NFDRS development it was not possible for any single fire-danger index to reflect the moisture responses of fuels such as organic soil and dead grass which are on opposite ends of the moisture response spectrum². Recent research has confirmed this point and shown that the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, 1000 hour time lag fuels or other indices commonly used by natural resource agencies do not reliably reflect burning conditions of organic soils (3 and 4). Most importantly these ground fuels when going through smoldering combustion phase have contributed to multiple-vehicle pile ups, numerous physical injuries, extensive property damage, and fatalities due to associated reduce visibility on transportation corridors due to smoke or a combination of smoke and fog. Most serious accidents have usually occurred at night or at sunrise as smoke is trapped in drainages in flat or steep topography or basins eventually drifting across roadways. Mobley (6) conducted a comprehensive study on smoke-related highway incidents that occurred in the South from 1979 to 1988. During this period, Mobley found that visibility reduction caused by smoke or a combination of smoke and fog caused 28 fatalities, over 60 serious injuries, numerous minor injuries, and litigation expenses into the millions. Environmental conditions or the fire weather information has been currently developed with the National Weather Service where these reduced visibility events have been foreseen as much as 60 hours before they occur. This is performed by evaluating fuel availability (ESP), surface temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, percent cloud cover, stability class, atmospheric dispersion index, low visibility occurrence risk index and superfog index (currently under development). The current proposal addresses the shortcomings of not knowing the availability of organic soils. ESP Models based on soil moisture content have been developed and validated under a wide range of prescribed fire conditions. During these prescribed fires the need to develop an efficient means to derive the soil moisture input for the ESP model became clear especially when trying to assess if they would pose a safety threat to transportation corridors. The ESP data collection platforms are one alternative that have been developed to address this need. These stations provide continuous small scale estimates of soil moisture and ESP concerning these soils. Additional sample work needs to be conducted to develop intermediate and larger scale estimates of soil moisture. NASA’s planned SMAP satellite deployment and acceptance into the ‘early adopters’ program is a unique and unexpected opportunity for this research. The risk or potential of smoldering combustion could be tracked using the ESP model in conjunction with SMAP soil moisture products. The results could be integrated into a meaningful and useful rating to assess burning conditions or placing planned fire across the landscape, emissions impact (Carbon and PM 2.5) and most importantly assess the threat to reduced visibility for transportation corridors. It will also facilitate cohesive and integrated planning and work between various stakeholders which can include: Natural Resource Agencies and their fire danger, predictive services, fire weather, fire behavior, smoke, fuel management disciplines and various agencies responding to real threats to transportation corridors. The mission of the NASA SMAP satellite is to map soil moisture and freeze/thaw states from space. The SMAP satellite because of its canopy/ground penetrating radar capability offers the only chance to remote sense these fuels. This new satellite program offers the potential to link regular (3 to 5 day) soil moisture estimates with our existing understanding of the risk of ground fire in these organic soils at a scale that will improve fire danger rating, smoke emission estimates and risk for reduced visibility for transportation corridors. Currently, fire danger of organic soils is not the addressed by the National Fire Danger Rating System. The evaluation of SMAP data products for transportation corridor safety is dependent on the integration of the small scale measurements of soil moisture from the ESP data collection platforms and the correlation with the remotely sensed satellite soil moisture estimates. Payoff / Benefits : As climate change progresses it has been predicted that organic soils will become more prone to sustained ignition and thereby pose an increasing threat to motorists’ highway safety. By enhancing and integrating various agency programs, affected and jurisdictional agencies can be prepared to implement mitigation measures versus reacting after the fact. Expected Benefits: paves the way for remote sensing capability whereby it: • Transportation and emergency response agencies will have information available before reduced visibility events occur and thereby preemptive mitigation measures can be implemented • Enhancement of Fire Danger Rating by assessing burning conditions of ground fuels that currently is not addressed within the current system • Identifies burning days for when units can be burned minimizing risk for sustained ignition of ground fuels and the threat of reduced visibility for nearby highways • Identifies when these fuels are sources of emissions via smoldering combustion phase • Improvement to Emission Inventories by addressing impact of ground fuel consumption • Offers the potential to improve work on ground fuel consumption models • Takes already invested research funds on ESP research and efficiently and economically links as well as integrates various natural resource programs (Fire Environment, Smoke and Fuels Management) and agency response programs concerned with reduced highway visibility • Provide insight into the occurrence and behavior of ground fires and the further development decision support systems for preplanning activities by transportation, law enforcement, emergency and natural resource agencies. It also gives insight to potential impacts to the Workforce and downwind populations. Literature Referenced: 1. Advances in Fire Practice, Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (2012) Drying Wetlands Resulting in Increased Peat Fires, Carbon Release. 2. Deeming J., (1988) Fire-Danger Rating: The Next 20 Years. Fire Management Notes Volume 49, No. 4 1988, p.3-7. 3. Reardon J., Curcio G., and Bartlette R. (2009) Soil moisture dynamics and smoldering combustion limits of pocosin soils in North Carolina, USA. International Journal of Wildland Fire 2009, 18, p.326-335. 4. Chan D., Paul J., and Dozier A. (2004) Keetch-Byrum Drought Index: Can It Help Predict Wildland Fires? Fire Management Today Volume 64 No. 2 Spring 2004 p.39-42 5. Reardon J., Hungerford R., and Ryan K. (2007) Factors affecting sustained smoldering in organic soils from pocosin and pond pine woodland wetlands. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2007, 16, p.107-118. 6. Mobley HE (1989) Summary of smoke-related accidents in the South from prescribed fire (1979-1988). Technical Release 90-R-11. American Pulpwood Association

Suggested By

Gary M. Curcio IPA Fire Environment Specialists, LLC 252-624-7635

[email protected]