Cantwell: Satellite Monitoring is “Essential” for Wildfire Prevention, Mapping and Recovery in the West

Bolt Creek Fire emblematic of need for space-based tech development, Cantwell highlights on 50th anniversary of Earth observation program

WASHINGTON, D.C– On Dec. 1, during a meeting of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) highlighted how observations from satellites have become vital tools in wildfire suppression and recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

Sen. Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, made her comments during a hearing recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Landsat Program, a satellite-based Earth observation system that provides the longest continuous space-based record of the planet’s land in existence.

Worsening wildfires in the West have made satellite-based Earth observations all the more vital, Sen. Cantwell said. She cited the Bolt Creek Fire, which burned thousands of acres along Washington’s Skykomish River and left U.S. Highway 2 vulnerable to landslides.

“The Bolt Creek fire burned approximately 15,000 acres east of Seattle in King County. We're used to having these fires on the other side of the Cascades, on the east side of the Cascades; we're not so used to having them on the west side of the Cascades. And Earth observation data [was] essential for real time fire mapping, measurements, part of suppression, and assessing post-[burn hazards],” said Sen. Cantwell. “So looking forward, we know that there is going to be a growing need around wildland fire prediction and long-term adaptation. We must be vigilant about these fires. Residents who just suffered through the Bolt Creek fires have to worry now about landslides.”

Sen. Cantwell continued: “That that kind of fire damage leaves you very, very vulnerable. So the United States must continue to sustain its growth in Earth observation capabilities in alignment with our community needs and scientific consensus. And the symbiotic development of research and operational capabilities managed by NASA, NOAA and USGS will, I believe, remain very critical to how the partners in the private sector also develop.”

For half a century, the United States has held a leadership role in developing and deploying satellite-based remote sensing system for monitoring the Earth. The data supports broad economic benefits, advances scientific inquiry, preserves national security, and protects human lives and property.

Information from the Landsat Program – a joint venture between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) -- has allowed researchers, farmers, and public agencies to observe and analyze the Earth’s resources and humanity’s impact on Earth.  The data have yielded $2.06 billion in annual benefits to U.S. users. Satellite-based Earth observation enables precision agriculture, improves city planning and water management, helps prevent and detect wildland fires, and provides rapid, valuable data immediately after natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

Earlier this year, Sen. Cantwell introduced the bipartisan Fire Ready Nation Act of 2022, which would formalize firefighting duties already performed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), enhancing the agency’s capacity to help prevent and fight wildfires. The bill would authorize over $100 million annually for science and technologies to forecast weather conditions that cause and spread wildfires – including remote sensing technologies, which rely on predictions informed by satellite-based Earth observation programs operated by NASA, NOAA, USGS, and commercial industry.

Video of Sen. Cantwell’s comments at the hearing is available HERE; Audio is available HERE.