From the ground, the scenes of California’s wildfires are terrifying, but looking down from high above reveals the massive and horrific scale of the blazes. The International Space Station and weather and Earth-observing satellites have detected their massive smoke plumes and, in some cases, their flames.
Most available space-based imagery shows the Kincade Fire, which has been dominating headlines since last Thursday when it broke out in the foothills of Sonoma County, Calif. Fanned by winds gusting over 90 mph at times and humidity plummeting to desert-like dryness, the inferno grew rapidly, now having scorched more than 75,000 acres.
By Sunday, the blaze was expanding at the average rate of 32 football fields per minute, blasting south and east and swallowing an area half the size of Washington, D.C., in just 12 hours.
The Kincade Fire is the largest of several blazes that were ignited amid a string of strong California windstorms, leading this week to the third major fire weather event in barely 10 days.
On Sunday, damaging winds blew through the slopes of central and northern California, cascading and accelerating down mountains and buffeting valleys with 40 to 60 mph winds.
The Sonoma County Airport saw humidity plummet 80 percent on Sunday night, with winds roaring to 33 mph within two hours’ time, thanks to the sudden onset of dangerous tinderbox conditions that have been sweeping across the Golden State. The airport’s weather station was “tricked” into logging rainfall reports, with ash and particulate matter likely spurring the sensor’s errors.
From space, “hot spots” showed up where the GOES West satellite detected fledgling fires.
The Earth-observing Planet SkySat zoomed in close enough to reveal smoke plumes towering upward and drifting west as the offshore breezes raged.
Meanwhile, wild shots from the Sentinel-2 satellites showed flames consuming a once-pristine mountain landscape.
By Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES West satellite was also able to pick up the smoke plume from the Easy Fire erupting in Southern California, driven by extremely critical fire weather conditions expected to last through Thursday.