Technology: Fighting wildfires with satellite data in Tanzania
Just 10 years ago, authorities in Tanzania largely relied on networks of lookout towers to observe and manage fires across the country’s vast landscapes. Today, satellite data delivered through EUMETSAT’s multi-service dissemination system EUMETCast are helping local communities vastly improve fire management and suppression strategies.
For hundreds of millions of years, wildfires have burned through forests, grasslands, savannahs, and other ecosystems. They are essential for the continued survival of many plant species and help keep some landscapes accessible to animal migrations.
However, due to factors such as more droughts, higher temperatures and widescale habitat degradation, many parts of the world are experiencing increases in conditions conducive to hugely damaging, unwanted wildfires.
In Tanzania, a wide range of initiatives and interventions have enabled the country to tackle these growing threats head-on. The country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism reports that despite growing challenges, average burnt areas caused by wildfires have been reduced by around 75 percent during the past decade.
Since 2011, these efforts have been supported by near-real time products and services such as weather fire danger indices, which make use of meteorological satellite data distributed through EUMETCast, EUMETSAT’s multi-service dissemination system.
Fire monitoring experts in the country explain that observing, tackling, and responding to wildfires is a hugely complex undertaking, requiring the combined efforts of a wide range of professionals working in forest and land management.
Managing conservation initiatives
Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is home to one of the greatest annual migrations on Earth. Each year, around two million wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles gallop across the seemingly endless landscapes of grasslands, woodlands and estuaries, headed in the direction of the Maasai Mara reserve.
Wildfires are an integral part of the dynamic savannah ecosystem. They help to keep its vistas open by suppressing the growth of thorny shrubs. They influence the composition, structure and patterns of vegetation. They also nourish the soils and shape the flows of water resources critical to ecosystem wellbeing.
Yet pressures from human settlements on the edges of the reserve, such as the expansion of agriculture and pastures, have threatened to throw the Serengeti ecosystem off balance. Studies indicate that in past decades, animal migrations have been disrupted, soil fertility reduced and populations of some species have plummeted.
“Ecosystems such as savannahs cannot exist without fire; wildfires are as essential as sun and water,” says Kekilia Kabalimu, a principal cartographer and geographic information system and remote sensing expert at the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. “Satellite observations show savannah landscapes dependent on fires are seeing less of them. Settlements and farms are acting as firebreaks. Livestock are consuming vegetation that would otherwise burn, while the buildup of shrubs can lead to larger, unsustainable wildfires later on.”
Diverse sets of satellite data delivered to users in Africa by EUMETCast support the coordination of conservation strategies. They facilitate ecological assessments of landscapes in the context of fire risk, detailed assessments of burned areas and provide near-real time information on fire activity.
“These data are vital not only for managing fires where they are beneficial but suppressing wildfires where they are not,” Kabalimu explains.
Fighting forest fires