Machine Learning and VIIRS Satellite Retrievals for Skillful Fuel Moisture Content Monitoring in Wildfire Management

John S. Schreck, William Petzke, Pedro A. Jimenez, Thomas Brummet, Jason C. Knievel, Eric James, Branko Kosovic, David John Gagne

Monitoring the fuel moisture content (FMC) of vegetation is crucial for managing and mitigating the impact of wildland fires. The combination of in situ FMC observations with numerical weather prediction (NWP) models and satellite retrievals has enabled the development of machine learning (ML) models to estimate dead FMC retrievals over the contiguous US (CONUS). In this study, ML models were trained using variables from the National Water Model and the High-Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) NWP models, and static variables characterizing the surface properties, as well as surface reflectances and land surface temperature (LST) retrievals from the VIIRS instrument on board the Suomi-NPP satellite system. Extensive hyper-parameter optimization yielded skillful FMC models compared to a daily climatography RMSE (+44\%) and to an hourly climatography RMSE (+24\%). Furthermore, VIIRS retrievals were important predictors for estimating FMC, contributing significantly as a group due to their high band-correlation. In contrast, individual predictors in the HRRR group had relatively high importance according to the explainability techniques used. When both HRRR and VIIRS retrievals were not used as model inputs, the performance dropped significantly. If VIIRS retrievals were not used, the RMSE performance was worse. This highlights the importance of VIIRS retrievals in modeling FMC, which yielded better models compared to MODIS. Overall, the importance of the VIIRS group of predictors corroborates the dynamic relationship between the 10-h fuel and the atmosphere and soil moisture. These findings emphasize the significance of selecting appropriate data sources for predicting FMC with ML models, with VIIRS retrievals and selected HRRR variables being critical components in producing skillful FMC estimates.

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