California Rim Fire Is Visible From Space … Far Too Easily

The entire universe in blog form
Aug. 27 2013 8:00 AM

California Burning

On Aug. 17, a fire started in California. It’s not clear what started it, but it has grown explosively and is currently only marginally under control. (As I write this, it’s about 15 percent contained.) The Rim Fire, as it’s called, has so far consumed about 150,000 acres (600 square kilometers, or 230 square miles—an area equivalent to a square 24 km or 15 miles on a side). More than 3,000 firefighters have been sent to fight the conflagration.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

NASA’s Terra satellite—designed to observe the interaction between Earth’s land, air, water, and energy—saw the wildfire on Sunday from space:

California wildfire seen from space
The California Rim Fire, seen by NASA's Terra satellite.

Photo by NASA/Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team

Advertisement

The red squares mark the location of the fire itself, tagged by thermal sensors on the satellite. The smoke plumes blow to the north-northeast, into Nevada (the thin black diagonal line marks the state border). The fire is more than 30 km across in the picture.

The fire is so big that International Space Station astronaut Karen Nyberg saw it easily from space; she says in a tweet that with some fires she’s not even looking for them in advance; she notices the smoke and then gets pictures. Here is a shot of the Rim Fire from her taken on Monday:

california wildfire seen from space
The view of the Rim Fire from the International Space Station. East is up, north to the left. Cick to embiggen.

Photo by NASA

It’s hard to express how bad these fires are if you’ve never seen one, even a smallish one, nearby. Years ago when we lived in northern California, there was a fire quite a bit away from my house, and I went out that day to take my daughter shopping. We parked, got out of the car, and could smell the smoke. Within minutes she wanted to go home; the air was uncomfortable to breathe, making our throats itchy and raw. We’ve had our share of fires in Colorado, too, including the devastating Black Forest fire and the Flagstaff fire last year that threatened my current home of Boulder. I saw that fire from my house, and if it had crested the hills, it could’ve swept down into town.

This year has actually seen fewer fires than normal, but the numbers fluctuate a lot year-to-year. (2010 had less area burned, for example, although there were more fires total that year.) And, of course, the season isn’t over.

The Rim Fire is huge, although there are two in Idaho currently burning that give it a run for its money. The Rim Fire is edging into Yosemite National Park and is currently approaching the Hetch Hetchy reservoir that supplies San Francisco with water. There’s concern it’ll hurt the Bay Area power generation as well; two out of three power stations have already been shut down.

I’ll have more thoughts about these fires shortly, but for now I want to make people aware of what’s going on and to note that satellites like Terra eventually help firefighters on the ground know where the fire is, where it’s going, and what lies around it. One of the benefits of exploring space is the ability to observe our own world and understand it better. Every little bit helps.