NASA EPSCoR grant supports wildfire research

Last Updated 31 March, 2016

In the midst of the end of fire season, the detrimental effects of fires are well known as the topic has populated news for months. What is seldom mentioned are the benefits of wildfires. Wildfires are needed for the health and regeneration of forests and wildlands. These lands often depend on sporadic fires for renewal. What is missing is a responsive, affordable and safe way to map the extent of fire damage in order to best develop recovery plans.

Northwest Nazarene University is pleased to announce that Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dale Hamilton and Associate Professor of Computer Science Barry Myers have been awarded a NASA EPSCoR (experimental program to stimulate competitive research) Undergraduate Research Grant to support their research on fire monitoring and assessment technology. The purpose of the NASA EPSCoR Program is to provide areas of the country that have often lacked aerospace research more opportunities. The first round of funding was received last fall, which allowed research to begin the end of 2014.

The goal of this project, which has been dubbed FireMAP, as stated in the proposal is to “provide a responsive, affordable and safe tool to assist with the development of post fire recovery plans and for updating spatial fuel layers to reflect the effects of the fire on vegetation.”

Hamilton and Myers will use an off-the-shelf unmanned aerial system (UAS) with an attached camera to gather and process data. This UAS will be able to fly over affected areas after fires have been extinguished to assess and monitor the effects of the fire. The data obtained will be a significant piece in recovery planning. The use of UAS is also an economical breakthrough, as, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it is roughly 10 percent the cost of using manned aircraft.

In preparation for photographing wildfire burns, the FireMAP team collaborated with Tegan Byerly’s engineering class at Vallivue High School to calibrate the UAS imagery. This collaboration was the result of the high school class wanting to contribute to the FireMAP project. By effectively marking a giant ruler across the Vallivue soccer field and flying the drone directly above a designated start point, the team was able to more accurately calibrate the spatial resolution of the imagery taken with the drone at varying heights. By more accurately defining the spatial resolution of the imagery, the FireMAP team was better prepared to go out into the wildfires and acquire more precise data.

During this most recent summer, the team used drones to photograph the aftermath of a wildfire, which allowed them to identify where the fire burned, what was burned, and in turn translate the imagery into usable data that can support prevention research. Hamilton is very confident in the future of UAS use in wildfire research saying, “We are very encouraged by the ability of the prototype systems we built over the summer to classify wildland fire extent and severity from hyperspatial UAS imagery. Our initial success in identifying where a fire burned as well as the vegetation types found outside the burn area bode well for the potential that can be achieved with future research.”

In addition to supporting the two faculty members, the grant will also provide opportunity for undergraduate computer science students to be involved in the FireMAP project. Supporting real world research under skilled faculty is an excellent way for students to gain hands-on experience contributing to students’ future fields. Six NNU computer science majors, freshman Nicholas Hamilton (Caldwell, Idaho), senior Tim Mong (Coquille, Ore.), junior Peter Oxley (Emmett, Idaho), Senior Johnathan Hamilton (Caldwell, Idaho), post bacc. Stacie Zaroban (Boise, Idaho) and senior Genesis Cruz (Nampa, Idaho) are the planned research assistants for the wildfire monitoring and assessment project.

For Hamilton, the emerging field of ecoinformatics is something he plans to research long after FireMAP ends. “There is an immense amount of research that needs to be done. From the development of analytics to mine knowledge from data derived from hyperspatial UAS imagery and other data sources to building the capability to manage the voluminous amounts of resulting data, there is enough work to keep me busy while I finish my doctorate, and for the rest of my career,” commented Hamilton.

For more information on the FireMAP team and their research, visit their website at

Photo caption: Peter Oxley (Emmett, Idaho), Nicholas Hamilton (Caldwell, Idaho), Professor Dale Hamilton, and Johnathan Hamilton (Caldwell, Idaho) fly “Ranch,” one of the drones used in the FireMAP research project.