This NASA Earth Observatory false-color image taken Dec. 5 shows the wildfires in Ventura County, Calif. (Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Thick plumes of smoke and bright flames of the wildfires ravaging Southern California this week can be seen from space.

The state’s biggest active blaze is in Ventura County, where the Thomas Fire continued to grow Friday and burned more than 200 square miles and destroyed more than 400 buildings. Another 85 structures were damaged, the county fire department said. The fire started Monday evening and erupted overnight.

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite on Tuesday captured a false-color image of the blaze based on observations of light visible and invisible to human eyes. The image depicts the active fires as orange, and the burn scar — the areas where the burning has made the ground less able to hold water and more likely to flood — as brown. Unburned vegetation is shown as green, and developed areas are gray.

A second, natural-color image of the region taken on the same day on NASA’s Terra satellite shows smoke from the fire billowing into the Pacific Ocean.


This NASA Earth Observatory natural-color image taken Dec. 5 shows the wildfires in Ventura County, Calif. (Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Wildfires have ravaged Southern California for five days. The blazes continued Friday as new fires streamed through communities and injured several people.

Astronaut Randy Bresnik of the NASA Expedition 52-53 crew tweeted Wednesday that he was asked if he could see the wildfires from space. “Unfortunately we can,” he said in a tweet, posting three photos.

On Friday, he tweeted two photos from the International Space Station as winds appeared to die down.

“Nice to see Point Mugu and Oxnard again,” he tweeted. Point Mugu is a promontory near the city of Oxnard in Ventura County.

He said he hoped the smoke would clear over the city of Ventura soon.

Russian astronaut Sergey Ryazansky, who is also part of the Expedition 52-53 crew, tracked the fires’ progress from the International Space Station, as well. He tweeted photos taken Thursday and Friday that showed thick clouds of smoke smothering Southern California.

The 52-53 crew launched July 28 on the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft for a five-month mission on the International Space Station.

NASA Earth on Wednesday tweeted a photo of the smoke from 65,000 feet taken from an ER-2 aircraft, which operates as a flying laboratory. The aircraft, based at NASA Armstrong Building 703 in Palmdale, Calif., gathers data on Earth’s resources and celestial observations.

NASA Earth tweeted another photo Thursday.

On Friday, President Trump declared an emergency in California and ordered federal aid to the state after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared states of emergencies in four counties. Hundreds of schools were shuttered, with some housing people who had fled their homes.

A new fire in San Diego began Thursday and grew rapidly and ferociously, spreading across 4,000 acres by Thursday night. The county’s deputy chief administration officer, Ron Lane, said he had never seen December winds like these.

Those winds — known as the Santa Ana — usually occur from spring to late fall or early winter. A high-pressure system forms over the Great Basin Desert and pushes air west toward lower-pressure areas of the coast.

As the winds tumble over the Sierra Nevada and Santa Ana mountains, they drop from high elevation to sea level, compressing and heating up in the process. The winds also gain speed as they roll over the mountains, and — suddenly — dry, hot air starts racing toward the coast.

As it heads toward the coast, the air hits parched vegetation: a recipe for a fire. Once the fire starts, the winds rapidly carries it to new areas.


The Thomas Fire burns between U.S. Highway 101 and the Pacific Ocean. (Stuart Palley for The Washington Post)

Dry weather made the region particularly ripe for major fires. The winds followed nine of the driest consecutive months in Southern California’s history, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert told the Los Angeles Times.

The most severe winds carrying the blazes could ease Friday and Saturday, according to forecasts, which could lessen the fire damage. But the National Weather Service still warns that the risk of fires will stay elevated through Sunday as conditions continue to be abnormally dry and breezy.

Bonnie Berkowitz and Aaron Steckelberg contributed to this report. 

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