Fighting wildfires with science

(CBS News) LOS ANGELES - This is already one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, and it's only early July. According to one estimate, 740,000 homes in 13 western states with a total value of $136 billion are at high risk of burning. However, there are scientists developing new weapons to fight fires before they even start.

This wildfire near Lancaster, California scorched more than 30,000 acres and destroyed 24 homes. Weeks before the blaze, this area had been identified for high fire risk by a NASA satellite tracking moisture content across California.

"We can help fight fires before they even begin and also save a lot of money and definitely save lives," said Ismael Calderon, a scientist at Chapman University. He's working with a team at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory that's using two weather and Earth observing satellites to survey millions of acres of California.

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"This whole area is very dry...totally dry," he said, pointing out something on a computer.

The data shows changes in vegetation and soil moisture. It identifies where the fire danger is highest, allowing fire agencies to plan their response before a fire occurs.

"When a fire is reported, fire agencies bring out everything they need," said Calderon, "helicopters, dozers, trucks. So if they could better assess what the danger level is in a certain area, they can assess how much they should bring to the table when a fire happens."

Scientists say the current drought followed a burst of vegetation growth in California this winter. That created plenty of dead fuel for future fires.

"We got a tinderbox," said George Ewan. "We are in a critical situation."

Ewan collects samples of vegetation for the Orange County Fire Authority. "Dead, dead...little bit of green vegetation here," he said as he was surveying an area.

He confirms on the ground what the satellites show from above: there is almost no moisture in this brush.

"I am seeing that we are in a critical stage two months ahead of schedule," he said. "The numbers I got last time, which I took two weeks ago, were comparable to the first part of August."

NASA is already sharing the satellite data with fire officials in southern California. The agency eventually plans to expand the program nationwide.