A $1.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will be used to equip spotter planes with detectors that can map and predict future movement for wildfires.

The planes will be equipped with improved infrared detectors that can take in real-time data that provide firefighters with information about a fire’s size and flame length. Using local wind speed and humidity data, the technology can also use machine learning algorithms to predict how far and how fast a fire will spread within 20 minutes of an outbreak.

The project’s two co-principal investigators are Tim Ball, founder and president of fire assessment and mapping company Fireball Information Technologies, and Carl Pennypacker, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.

Ball said the grant will help develop a system that will improve firefighter safety and improve strategic decision making to contain fires faster.

“It is not unusual for wildfires to burn for 20 minutes or more before being reported, by which time they can be beyond easy control.”

Tim Ball, Fireball Information Technologies

“If firefighters could be alerted to a fire within 10 minutes — if they knew where it was and could get to it, even without any heroic measures, like airborne tankers on constant alert — that saves a lot of money and lives,” Pennypacker said in a statement.

Pennypacker previously worked with the ALERTWildire group at UC San Diego to install near-infrared cameras around the state to detect wildfires before teaming up with Ball to take the technology to the sky. Within four years, the two hope to be able to use the technology on spacecrafts for around-the-clock fire monitoring.

Catching wildfires early is a key measure in getting them contained quickly. In the 2018 Camp Fire, the town of Paradise burned before firefighters could even reach the point of ignition.

“It is not unusual for wildfires to burn for 20 minutes or more before being reported, by which time they can be beyond easy control,” Ball said in a statement.

Though Cal Fire and other groups have previously used planes for fire monitoring and detection, Ball and Pennypacker’s project utilizes advanced infrared imaging and measures to optimize the trade-off between speed and resolution, allowing the technology to both scan large areas of land while also picking up on fires in their early stages.

The duo plans to use the airplane-based system as a test for the technology.