New satellite helps track Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas wildfires

When wildfires scorched more than 1 million acres in early March across parts of the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas, forecasters used a new weather satellite to see the infernos developing, almost in real time.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports when a line of severe thunderstorms produced five tornadoes in the Houston area on Feb. 14, the same satellite could see lightning strikes intensifying inside the storms. That kind of information could be helpful the next time a strong line of storms fires up west of Fort Worth.

“This high-resolution data is going to give us a lot of insight into the severity of these storms,” said Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth, who added that lightning is one clue to the intensity of a storm.

The GOES 16 (short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) was launched last November and sits more than 22,000 miles above the Earth.

The satellite is still in a testing phase and not considered operational, but it is providing stunning images, not just of weather phenomena like the West Texas dust storms, but of the sun as well.

Wildfires show up as black spots on the satellite’s infrared images. In remote areas, the satellite may detect them before anybody sees them on the ground. The satellite won’t see one- to two-acre fires but should see anything spreading about 50 acres, Bradshaw said.

“What we’re able to do now is detect fires pretty shortly after they start,” Bradshaw said. “The characteristics of how fires show up on infrared satellite data are pretty distinct.”

For North Texas, the satellite could help with severe storms and large wildfires, such as the Possum Kingdom wildfire that charred 170,000 acres in Palo Pinto, Young and Stephens counties in 2011.

“None of these by themselves are going to be silver bullets,” Bradshaw said. “But it’s going provide us a richer data set.”

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