Track California Wildfires Using Space Satellite Images and Tools

California is currently experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in its history—and satellites are helping to track the scale of the blazes and the vast smoke plumes they are producing.

Instruments aboard several satellites—including NASA's Aqua and Terra spacecraft and the joint NASA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Suomi NPP satellite—are constantly monitoring fires across the state, which have burned around two million acres this year, according to Cal Fire.

The video below shows a satellite image loop revealing the rapid expansion of several large new fires that broke out across California over the weekend, including the Creek Fire in Fresno County, the Valley Fire in San Diego County and the El Dorado Fire in San Bernardino County.

Several new fire in California today. The #CreekFire in Fresno County. #ValleyFire in San Diego County. #ElDoradoFire in San Bernardino County. Lots of smoke seen on satellite.

— Drew Tuma (@DrewTumaABC7) September 6, 2020

Another set of images show the vast amounts of smoke being pumped out by the Creek Fire—which has now burned more than 73,000 acres and is zero percent contained—as well as a large pyrocumulonimbus cloud.

This plume created a few lightning strikes as well.


— Dakota Smith (@weatherdak) September 6, 2020

These are thunderstorm clouds that form as a result of strong upward moving air currents produced by phenomena such as wildfires or volcanic eruptions, according to Steven Ackerman and Jonathan Martin with the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at The University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Creek Fire showing no signs of slowing down today.

The pyrocumulonimbus plume has already produced a few lightning strikes this morning.

— Dakota Smith (@weatherdak) September 6, 2020

If you would like to view close to real-time satellite imagery of the fires, you can use NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) Worldview interactive application, which provides a view of the Earth essentially as it looks now. You can also view older snapshots of the planet to see fires that are no longer active.

The application uses data collected by the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument on Terra and Aqua as well as the VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) instrument on Suomi.

Fires that are actively burning—as well as other thermal anomalies—are marked as red points on the Worldview map, highlighting locations where there are strong emissions of infrared radiation. Each point represents the center of a pixel where one or multiple fires are burning.

California wildfires
An image of California featuring smoke produced by wildfires, captured with NASA's Earth Observing System Data and Information System Worldview application. NASA/EOSDIS

You can also see fires that are burning at night time as well. To do this, turn on the Nighttime imagery (Day/Night Band, Enhanced Near Constant Contrast) layer from the VIIRS instrument, which reveals the blazes as bright, white areas in false color images.

Fires emit large amounts of smoke that can often cause air quality issues and reduce visibility. Smoke levels can also be tracked using the application by applying the Aerosol Index layer, which utilizes data collected by the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) on Suomi. This layer reveals areas where there are high levels of aerosols in the atmosphere, indicating thick smoke plumes in locations where fires are burning.

A loop of satellite imagery created by Penn State's department of meteorology provides a close-up view of California from space over the course of the last 15 hours, revealing the extent of the smoke plumes generated by the wildfires burning across the state.

An interactive map application known as the Satellite Loop Interactive Data Explorer in Real-time (SLIDER) recently developed by the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere also provides a full color satellite view of the state over the last few hours. The application also features additional layers that can be applied to reveal the temperature of fires that are burning.