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  • New satellite tool to detect Himalayan forest fires

[KATHMANDU] In collaboration with Nepal’s forest department, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has developed a forest fire detection and monitoring system based on satellite data.

The system is in the early stages of implementation in Nepal and ICIMOD is looking to expand it to cover neighbouring Bhutan.

"We see the system as useful for both countries, so we want the respective forest departments to use it," explained Sudhir Pradhan, geographic information system and decision support system developer at ICIMOD.

Forest fires in Nepal peak during the pre-monsoonal dry months from late March to early May. ICIMOD datasets show 1,857 active fires last year — a relatively small number compared to the 4,217 that erupted in 2009, an exceptionally dry year. 

"Fires can be used as a tool for forest management, but if they become uncontrollable that can be dangerous," explained Yajnanath Dahal, technical undersecretary at Nepal’s ministry of forests and soil conservation.

According to Dahal, most fires do not cause loss of human life and may support seed growth, but some can negatively impact soil compactness, seed germination and reduce tree stock. 

The Maryland-based Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) delivers active fire information based on images collected from two NASA satellites — Terra and Aqua — that complete an orbit in 98 minutes each.

The new ICIMOD application reprocesses FIRMS data to provide localised information on active fires within the ward — municipal subunit — where the fire is located, whether the fire is in a protected area, altitude and slope of the site, and land cover type.

Updates are then sent by SMS and email to subscribers. Alerts are sent out twice daily, two hours after each satellite passes over the region.

Dahal said the application serves as an information-gathering and awareness-raising tool but a lot more is needed, such as fire-fighting equipment, transportation, trained personnel, and water. "If we can manage all of this in the districts, then the application will be very useful."

Arun Rai, senior forest officer in Bhutan’s department of forests and park services, is more concerned about the two-hour lag between satellite fire detection and reporting. ICIMOD hopes to reduce this to a few minutes once it sets up its own receiving station for satellite images, later this year."

Link to ICIMOD press release: