Satellite Imagery Saves Federal Agencies up to $7.7 Million per Year in Post-Wildfire Costs


July 11, 2019

News Type

Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC—After a wildfire, people, property, and natural resources face threats like flooding and erosion. According to a new study by Resources for the Future (RFF), using imagery from the Landsat satellite program is the most cost-effective method to assess burned land and prioritize response measures. The study shows that by using Landsat imagery, federal agencies can save up to $7.7 million per year.

Without Landsat imagery, federal land managers would need to pay for helicopter surveys or purchase commercial satellite imagery to assess the burned land. Both of these measures increase mapping costs in comparison to using Landsat imagery, which is freely available.

The Landsat program, a joint National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and US Geological Survey (USGS) program, is a sequence of Earth-observing satellites that have been capturing images of Earth for almost 50 years.

The new RFF study uses data from Idaho’s Elk Complex Fire in the Boise National Forest to compare the cost of using Landsat imagery to the cost of using commercial satellite imagery or aerial surveys from helicopters. The researchers find that using Landsat imagery yielded a cost savings of over $51,000 for the Elk Complex Fire when compared to a helicopter-only response, and a cost savings of over $11,000 compared to a response that uses commercial satellite imagery.

The new study is “The Cost-Effectiveness of Satellite Earth Observations to Inform a Post-Wildfire Response,” by Richard Bernknopf, Department of Economics, University of New Mexico; Yusuke Kuwayama, Reily Gibson, Jessica Blakely, and Bethany Mabee, RFF; T.J. Clifford, Bureau of Land Management, US Department of the Interior; Brad Quayle, Justin Epting, and Terry Hardy, Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture (USDA); and David Goodrich, Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

According to lead author Bernknopf, “This study provides yet another example of how citizens and government services both can benefit significantly from using satellite technology to inform vital management decisions.”

RFF is measuring how satellite information benefits people and the environment when it is used in decisionmaking through its VALUABLES Consortium, a cooperative agreement with NASA to quantify and communicate the socioeconomic benefits of Earth observations. This study was funded in part through this consortium. VALUABLES stands for the Consortium for the Valuation of Applications Benefits Linked with Earth Science.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please see our media resources page or contact Media Relations and Communications Specialist Annie McDarris.

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