SANTA FE - A new tool for visualizing and tracking wildfires from the sky was launched on twitter Wednesday by a New Mexico-based startup company, in an effort that combines super-computing capabilities with satellite imagery.

Santa Fe-based Descartes Labs began distributing time-lapse video segments taken from satellite imagery of individual wildfires across the country. Hashtags that correspond to the name or location of fires are attached, allowing people to quickly find relevant imagery.

The technology taps into satellite images derived from both visible and infrared light to trace the heat signatures of fires through the night and on overcast days when smoke may go undetected.

"The long waves of infrared data can penetrate clouds and smoke plumes so that you can see the heat signature on the ground, so you can see the bright red patch start and grow through time," said Caitlin Kontgis, lead applied scientist at Descartes. "The real power of this tool comes in the fact that that satellite collects data at night."

Descartes' experts in high-performance computing have collected and refined images taken from a satellite launched in 2016 by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The GOES-6 satellite orbits in unison with the rotation of the earth above the Western Hemisphere, collecting a huge data trove of imagery of North America by day and night.

"We're able to pull (the data) down, clean it up, and get it analysis-ready within four minutes from capture," Descartes explained in a blog post.

The project aims to provide a public service with possible safety benefits, free of charge, Kontgis said.

"If it's somebody in the community interested in knowing about a specific fire and they're searching by hashtag, our video can come up and help them understand which way smoke is moving, which way the fire has been moving, how quickly it developed," she said.

Descartes said it has offered a related wildfire watch system to overseers of the Santa Fe National Forest and is exploring novel ways to detect new fires quickly. The 2,500-square-mile forest in northern New Mexico reopened on July 9 after a five-week closure because of dry conditions and the threat of fire.

Santa Fe National Forest spokesman Bruce Hill said the technology demonstration was not seen as immediately useful.

"There could be opportunities down the road, but not at this time," he said.

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