The Rim Fire in central California, with its massive footprint trickling into  treasured Yosemite National Park, has captured the nation’s attention.  The fire covers nearly 180,000 acres (280 square miles) and is  20 percent contained.

Weather imagery offers both close-up and distant views of the fire, helping us better understand the size of the blaze, where its smoke is being transported and its effects on people and the environment.

As University of Washington atmospheric science professor Cliff Mass notes: “The impacts [of the fire] are continental in scale.”

Here’s a tour of the blaze, from space, from the ground, and from the guts of a supercomputer…

Day time images from space

Day time high resolution satellite imagery shows the smoke plume and where it’s heading. It can also isolate where the fire is active by sensing “hot spots” (outlined in red below).

Via NASA : “On August 26, 2013, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of the Rim fire burning in and near Yosemite National Park. Red outlines indicate hot spots where MODIS detected unusually warm surface temperatures associated with fire.”)

The view from the International Space Station shows the thick envelope of smoke in even greater detail. Notice how well the origins of the stream of smoke line up with the hot spots in the image above it.

Via astronaut Karen L. Nyberg from the International Space Station on Monday: “Our orbit took us directly over California’s Rim Fire about an hour ago.”

A somewhat wider view of the plume shows it extending through northwest Nevada.

Via NOAA : “This image was taken by the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS insrument around 2000Z (1 p.m. WT on August 25, 2013.”)

The smoke is compromising air quality in Nevada writes NASA:

Dense smoke from the fire has been a serious health threat as well.  Health officials in Reno, Nevada report the air quality index in their city is in the “unhealthy” range due to the smoke fallout from the Rim Fire. The smoke has also created visibility problems for air ambulance services in the Reno area as well. 

Nighttime satellite images

Some satellites can even sense characteristics of the fire at night.  Writes NASA:

The [Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite] day-night band is extremely sensitive to low light, making it possible to see the fire front from space. The brightest, most intense parts of the fire glow white, exceeding the brightness of the lights of Reno, Nevada to the north. Pale gray smoke streams north away from the fire…

Via NOAA : “This image was taken by the Suomi NPP satellite’s Day-Night Band around 0950Z on August 23, 2013.”

Below, a NASA-generated sequence of nighttime images help illustrate the growth of the fire and its plume. You can see the northeast ring of the fire cutting into the northwest section of Yosemite.

Via NASA : “The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS on the Suomi NPP satellite tracked the growth of the fire between August 23 and August 26 in this series of nighttime images.”)

Animated satellite images

This animated image from August 21 to 23 show the growth of the fire’s hot spots.

Via Tom Yulsman’s blog : “Animated gif based on images from the Suomi NPP satellite. Black, yellow and red pixels show hot spots from the fire. ” ( Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies.)

A more recent high resolution satellite animation from August 25 and 26 offers a close-up illustration of the transport of the fire’s smoke plume.

Rim Fire satellite loop created by Jesse Ferrell via YouTube


Radar imagery can detect matter lofted in the air from a fire.  In this case, it’s sensing ash suspended in the smoke plume to the blaze’s northeast. Writes meteorologist Mike Smith (an executive Vice President at Accuweather) of Meteorological Musings: While it is not uncommon for meteorologists to be able to see smoke on radar, this is one of the most impressive examples I have seen considering the distance of the Rim Fire from the radar.

Via Meteorological Musings (Mike Smith) : “Within the red rectangle are images of the radar’s energy being reflected off the smoke and ash in much the same way as it would be with a snowflake or raindrop. The actual flames (not seen are at the south end of each of the three main plumes.”)

Model simulations

Upper level winds can transport chemical matter (combustion products) emitted in a fire long distances, affecting air quality thousands of miles from the source.  These model simulations of the transport of carbon monoxide from NASA, offer a clear illustration.

Via Cliff Mass’ blog : “This model-diagnosed carbon monoxide in a vertical column of air produced by biomass burning (like burning trees) for Sunday morning calculated using the GEOS-5 air chemistry simulation system (thanks to Professor Lyatt Jaegle for pointing this out to me. The carbon monoxide from the Sierra fires moves northward into the Pacific Northwest and Alberta and then heads east.”)

Photos of the fire

Fires can create their own weather, as the hot air they generate rises leading to billowing pyrocumulus clouds.

( NASA )

Of course, just as fires affect the weather, weather and climate conditions can set the stage for devastating blazes such as this one.

For more information, read Andrew Freedman’s excellent piece at Climate Central: Yosemite Fire Example of How Droughts Amplify Wildfires