Large wildfire driven increases in nighttime fire activity observed across CONUS from 2003–2020

TitleLarge wildfire driven increases in nighttime fire activity observed across CONUS from 2003–2020
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsFreeborn, PH, MattJolly, W, A.Cochrane, M, GarethRoberts,
JournalRemote Sensing of Environment
Date Published01/2022
KeywordsLarge wildfires, Nighttime fire activity, Nighttime persistence, Nighttime proportion, technical reports and journal articles

Despite the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of wildfires, little attention has been paid to the spatiotemporal patterns of nighttime fire activity across the conterminous United States (CONUS). Daytime fire radiative power (FRP) detected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) was nearly evenly split (54% vs. 46%) between inside and outside wildfires from 2003 to 2020. In contrast, 94% of nighttime FRP was detected within wildfires, of which 95% was detected within large wildfires (> 2023 ha). Nighttime proportions (i.e., the proportion of total summed FRP detected by MODIS at night) were lowest (3%) outside wildfires when coincident 1000-hr fuel moistures were highest and vegetation fires were smaller and less intense. As 1000-hr fuel moistures decreased, MODIS active fire pixels shifted out of agricultural and prescribed fires and into wildfires with higher nighttime per-pixel values of FRP such that nighttime proportions peaked at 29% for the largest wildfires. Increases in nighttime proportions within larger wildfires were attributed to increases in nighttime persistence whereby under the driest conditions, daytime fire activity detected by MODIS was more likely to continue burning with sufficient vigour to be detected again at night. From 2003–2020, MODIS detected significant (p < 0.01) increasing trends in nighttime wildfire fire activity, with a +54%, +42% and +21% increase in the annual nighttime sum of FRP, annual nighttime active fire pixel counts and annual mean nighttime per-pixel values of FRP, respectively, detected in the latter half of the study period. Nighttime trends were corroborated using observations from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) as well annual wildfire statistics reported by U.S. federal, state and local agencies. Moreover, MODIS detected a significant positive trend in the nighttime proportion of FRP emitted from wildfires, indicating that in the absence of diurnal differences in detection biases, increases in nighttime fire activity since 2003 have outpaced daytime increases. However an analysis of MODIS omission rates revealed that increasing nighttime proportions were at least partially attributed to a relatively greater improvement in nighttime detection performance compared to the daytime for larger wildfires burning during drier conditions. Nighttime fire activity already poses additional risks to firefighters and communities, and this work suggests that projected increases in the frequency of large wildfires will be accompanied by increases in the extent and intensity of nighttime fire activity.