NASA images show the gravity of California wildfires

Nearly 14,000 lightning strikes in the United States’ California caused nearly 900 fires to burn through 1.5 million acres of land as of September

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 07 September 2020

Nearly 14,000 lightning strikes in California, United States, caused nearly 900 fires to burn through 1.5 million acres of land, as of September 2020. The effects from the fire did not spare those living away from them either. Poor air quality reached hazardous levels in several places, while the smoke from the fires drove up particulate pollution in California. It was five times higher in late August 2020 compared to the same month last year, according to the news daily New York Times.

This ‘lightning siege’ that began in August destroyed more than 3,700 structures and led to seven deaths, according to California’s department of forestry and fire protection.

Smoke continued to stream from the August Complex fires — located northwest of Willows, California — when the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Operational Land Imager on its Landsat 8 satellite had acquired images September 1.

Images shared by NASA showed the northern extent of the fire, where strong winds caused fire activity to pick up.


A natural-coloured image (left) and image formed by combination of shortwave and near-infrared data (right). Photos: NASA

Streaks of red were visible in the natural-coloured image, where aerial crews dropped fire retardant to curb the spread of the fire.

The other image — made from a combination of shortwave and near-infrared data — revealed the intensity of fire through the clouds. The hottest and most active parts of the fire can be seen in yellow, while the pink halo around the main fire area was caused by hot gases emitted in the immediate vicinity of the fire front at the lower reaches of the fire plume. Areas burned earlier can be seen in dark brown.

The fire management community utilises data like this to quickly identify fire hot spots for indicating where fires are burning,” said Vince Ambrosia, an associate program manager for wildfires in NASA’s Earth Science Applied Sciences Program.

“This allows fire managers to quickly mobilise firefighting resources and personnel and aids with post-fire burn severity mapping for recovery operations on the most critical ecosystem-affected areas,” said Ambrosia, also a scientist working at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The August Complex fires — that accounted for a quarter million of the 1.5 million acres of land burned — were just one of the 20 major fires and fire complexes actively burning across California early September.

The Lake Napa Unit Complex fires burned 375,209 acres (586 square miles / 1,518 square kilometres) by September 2, making it the third-largest wildfire by acreage in California’s history.

Similarly, the Santa Clara Unit Complex, east of San Jose, was the second-greatest fire in the state’s history: It burned 391,578 acres (612 sq miles /1,585 sq km).

Fire complexes further south, however, slowed their advancement, said Ambrosia. “All these events were lightning-caused and burning in remote Mediterranean-ecosystem shrub and forested regions,” he added.

Many areas that burned, including the August Complex fire area, experienced higher fuel loads due to the absence of periodic fires, according to Ambrosia. “These combined with the aforementioned variables contributed to more intense wildfire spreading,” he added.

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