On 18 March 2012, very warm, very dry and very windy conditions existed throughout eastern Colorado. Surface observations showed temperatures in the 70s and 80s, dew points in the teens and 20s, and sustained winds at 20-30 knots (gusting over 40 knots). Wind gusts up to 60 knots (~70 mph) were reported.
A red flag warning was issued for nearly all of eastern Colorado. And with good reason! A grass fire started in Yuma County, CO (which borders Nebraska and Kansas) in the early afternoon, and quickly grew out of control. The media dubbed it the Heartstrong Fire. An area 14 x 16 miles had to be evacuated, although only 2400 acres actually burned. The smoke plume was easily visible from the Goodland, KS, National Weather Service radar. Two homes were destroyed, and three firefighters were injured battling the blaze.
Even though cirrus clouds covered the area (as seen in the true color image above), VIIRS observed the fire in its two 3.7 µm channels. The VIIRS images shown here, from 19:34 UTC, were taken roughly 20 minutes after the fire was first reported. The moderate resolution band M-12 (centered at 3.7 µm) identifies a hot spot (which shows up as black in the image below) that is approximately 6 pixels by 3 pixels. With ~750 m resolution at nadir in this band, that corresponds to a total area of 10.2 km² of pixels that contain a fire signal.
The high resolution imagery band I-4 (centered at 3.74 µm) also identifies the hot spot. In this case it is approximately 11 pixels by 5 pixels in size. At ~375 m resolution at nadir, this corresponds to an area of 7.7 km² of pixels that contain a fire signal.
Thus, the difference in resolution between these two channels leads to a difference in the apparent size of the hot spot as seen by satellites. However, it should be noted that this apparent size is only an estimate of the size of the hot spot visible in the satellite image, not the actual size of the fire. Fires move in narrow flame fronts that cover only a small percentage of the pixel area. From a firefighting perspective, detecting which pixels actually contain fire and where the actual burning occurs within those pixels are two different things.
Of additional interest is the difference in observed brightness temperatures between these two channels. The warmest pixel in M-12 was 327 K, while the warmest pixel in I-4 was 342 K. As the observed brightness temperature is related to the fraction of each pixel covered by fire, the higher resolution images produce higher brightness temperatures in the hot spot.
This means that, to a human observer, the hot spot appears larger in the M-band image, while, from an automated algorithm point-of-view, the I-band image has a larger number of pixels within the hot spot, and higher brightness temperatures. The difference in the appearance of the hot spot between these channels is more clearly seen in the figure below. Be sure to click on the image, and then look for the “1700×702” link above the image title and click on that to see the comparison in its highest quality.
As an additional note, band M-13 (centered at 4.05 µm) is the primary band used in active fire detection. This band was designed specifically to measure the radiative signal of hot spots without sensor saturation. The M-13 image of the fire is shown below.
There is a dedicated team of researchers actively exploring fire detection from VIIRS. You can learn more about fire detection and the status of their current fire detection products by visiting viirsfire.geog.umd.edu.