Flagstaff’s Team Snuffed competes for a shot at $11 million with its space-based wildfire detection project

A helicopter flies over a forest with smoke rising from between the trees.

A Flagstaff team made up of NAU and Flagstaff-based engineers, scientists and fire professionals has been selected to advance to the next stage of the Space-based Detection and Intelligence Track of the XPRIZE Wildfire competition.  

The team, known as Team Snuffed, is proposing a constellation of small satellites to provide rapid detection of wildfires before they become large and very destructive. Snuffed is one of 20 teams worldwide and the only team in Arizona that has advanced to the Space-based Detection and Intelligence Track global semi-finals, to be held in April 2025. 

“Catching ignitions extremely early, before they become destructive wildfires, is key to controlling the catastrophic losses we’ve seen too often of late,” said team member Alexander Shenkin, assistant research professor of ecoinformatics at NAU. “Providing this data to authorities in a decision-making dashboard so they can quickly decide whether to snuff it out or let it burn as a healthy ecosystem process would be a complete game-changer.” 

To change the game, Team Snuffed proposes launching a constellation of 90 small satellites (cubesats) into low Earth orbit. Ninety satellites, each orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, allows for one pass over a specific location every minute. Each of these heat-seeking eyes in the sky would be equipped with the VISIONS (VISible and Infrared ObservatioN System) camera developed at NAU and built by students for the upcoming NASA EscaPADE mission to Mars. The network would offer continuous monitoring of a swath that includes Flagstaff, areas near the California/Nevada border, the Pacific Northwest, western Canada and Alaska—all areas that have been significantly impacted by wildfires in the past few years. 

But what does something like this cost? About $100 million. 

“Of course, that’s a lot of money,” said team lead David Trilling, professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science at NAU. “However, it’s a fraction of the nearly $5 billion in annual costs of fighting fires, paying insurance, restoring damaged and destroyed structures and not to mention the irreplaceable cost of lives lost. This is a relatively tiny investment for an enormous savings.” 

XPRIZE is the global leader in designing, launching and executing large-scale competitions to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. With hundreds of millions of dollars invested in solutions, previous XPRIZE competitions have ranged from space exploration to medical advancements, water sanitation and health tech solutions. 

XPRIZE Wildfire is a four-year, $11 million competition incentivizing the innovation of firefighting technologies that will end destructive wildfires so that humanity and beneficial wildfire can safely co-exist. 

“It’s energizing to be able to come together as a team and attempt to do something meaningful, not only for our community, but others around the world who are also facing the existential threat of wildfires,” said the founder of Team Snuffed Flagstaff engineer Cody Hartman.  

At the April 2025 semi-finals, Snuffed and the other 19 semi-finalist teams will compete by demonstrating their wildfire detection capabilities on a simulated fire. Semi-final winners will advance to the finals, held in August 2025, where they will compete for the grand prize of $11 million. 

NAU Communications