Fire crews combat a bushfire on Canberra’s Black Mountain.

Fire crews combat a bushfire on Canberra’s Black Mountain.

Locating bushfires as they happen

With CSIRO’s Sentinel Hotspots, there are now more reliable 'eyes' in the sky for Emergency Services, using satellite images as the basis for a system that has the fastest bushfire tracking in the world.

  • 29 May 2006 | Updated 14 October 2011

Team effort

CSIRO, with the Department of Defence and Geoscience Australia, has developed an internet-based satellite mapping system called Sentinel Hotspots.

Sentinel Hotspots gives emergency service managers access to the latest fire location information using satellite data.

Fire fighting organisations across Australia have used this new strategic management tool, since it was launched in 2002, to identify and zoom in on fire hotspots.

They can also use Sentinel Hotspots to monitor bush fires as they develop and shift location.

Watch-tower in the sky

According to CSIRO team leader, Dr Alex Held, the system is a significant breakthrough in bushfire monitoring.

'Before the creation of Sentinel Hotspots, emergency services in Australia (with the exception of Western Australia and the Northern Territory) relied on "eye-witness" reports from people in vehicles, fire towers, spotter planes and helicopters to pinpoint the location, extent and rate of spread,’ says Dr Held.

‘Reports were not always reliable or even available. For example, there was often no information in remote areas, or when planes and helicopters were grounded due to thick smoke or high winds.'

Sentinel Hotspots uses data provided free-of-charge by NASA satellites — the fastest turnaround of satellite data for bushfire tracking in the world.

Sentinel Hotspots gives Emergency Services managers access to the latest fire location information.

Keeping you safe

Sentinel Hotspots can be used by anyone with a computer linked to the internet.

Users see satellite 'snapshots' of the latest fire hotspots across all of Australia.

They can create and print out maps of their local hotspot locations at a neighbourhood scale. Sentinel Hotspots can give detailed locations of hotspots to an accuracy of about 1.5 kilometres within an hour of the satellite's overpass. These maps can be customised to show information such as:

  • topography
  • roads
  • streams
  • reservoirs
  • airports.

'Behind the scenes', says Dr Held, 'the hotspot images are updated three to four times a day using data from NASA satellites, which are received by Geoscience Australia and processed to create surface temperature imagery.'

The website was officially launched on 15 January 2003, only three days before bushfires assaulted Canberra. The 'pilot' website was bombarded by firefighters, media and concerned members of the public, all logging on to check the progress of the blazes.

Sentinel Hotspots' usage peaked on the 19 January 2003, when it hosted more than 20,000 visits (1.6 million hits). The team from CSIRO worked around the clock throughout the following week to keep their prototype system operational.

Our partner Geoscience Australia hosts the Sentinel Hotspots [external site].