Experimental Radar Is Being Used to See beneath the California Fires and Smoke

Ka Band radar has the potential to map out fires in real-time.
Chris Young

The well-documented forest fires raging in California over the last few weeks have seen thousands flee their homes as the flames close in.

While that's been taking place, a group of scientists has been doing the opposite, heading towards the fires.


Experimental Doppler radar

Scientists from San Jose University's Fire Weather Research Laboratory have used the horrible conditions to test an experimental Doppler radar that is capable of looking into wildfire smoke plumes in unprecedented detail.

As Science Alert reports, the researchers hope the system will provide insights into the ways that wildfires develop. In doing so, the system will help fire brigades tackle the flames and efficiently predict evacuation areas.

How do they work?

Doppler radars emit pulses of microwave energy into the air that bounce off particles. These reflections are picked up by the radar and provide information on the size and motion of these particles, which can be snow, insects, raindrops, or ash.

The readings help the researchers to get a better understanding of the conditions within a smoke plume.

Weather radars typically use S-band frequency wavelengths to study different conditions. The new San Jose University radar, meanwhile, uses the Ka band, a set of millimeter-wavelength frequencies that allow it to detect very fine ashy particles that are present in wildfire plumes.

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A mobile radar

Not only that, the radar is mounted on a truck, meaning it is mobile and can quickly be moved to an active fire. It collects information within minutes of arriving.

The team captured some "amazing details," said Craig Clements, the director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory, who has led the deployment of the new radar these last few weeks.

Included in the information, what the radar picked up was information on the wind field as well as turbulence within the plume.

The strong winds that provoke large wildfires not only help spread them but can also create dangerous fire whirls.

The scientists hope that fire crews will eventually be able to use their radar to accurately forecast the evolution of large wildfires, such as the ones currently raging in California.

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