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NASA Images of the California Fires

14 Dec 2017, 4:31 pm

[NASA’s Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS, instrument on December 12. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team, GSFC.]

The huge amounts of smoke tumbling off the coast of California is an indicator of how active the Thomas Fire still is in Ventura County, California. The grayish brown smoke shows that the fire is continuing to find fuel to burn.  The billows of smoke coming off the Thomas Fire reach from Santa Barbara all the way up the coast into Oregon and Washington.  Inciweb reports that the fire is 237,500 acres in size and has been burning for 10 days now.  Even though almost 50 percent of the fire is on national forest system land, the fire still continues to threaten structures and communities.  The Santa Ana winds are still gusty and are pushing the fire to the west.  In the path of the fire, there is still plenty of fuel which is critically low in moisture and easily combustible.  Low humidity also continues to support growth.  The main concern of the firefighting effort is to continue to defend structures that are in the path of the fire and to continue efforts to control the perimeter of the fire.  At present, the fire is 25% contained.  Nearly 8,000 firefighters are engaged in the Thomas Fire.

[On Dec. 5, 2017, the Multi Spectral Imager (MSI) on the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite captured the data for a false-color image of the burn scar in Ventura County, California. Active fires appear orange; the burn scar is brown. Unburned vegetation is green; developed areas are gray.]

The Thomas Fire continues to threaten the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas.  Weather conditions continue to be favorable for fire growth and unfavorable for fire fighting.  A Red Flag warning remains in effect, meaning that critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now, or will shortly. A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm can contribute to extreme fire behavior.

A prolonged spell of dry weather also primed the area for major fires. This week’s winds follow nine of the driest consecutive months in Southern California history. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert told the Los Angeles Times. “Pile that onto the long drought of the past decade and a half, [and] we are in apocalyptic conditions,” he said.

[During an engineering flight test of the Cloud-Aerosol Multi-Angle Lidar (CAMAL) instrument, a view from NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s ER-2 aircraft shows smoke plumes, from roughly 65,000 feet, produced by the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, California, around 1 p.m. PST on Dec. 5th. Credits: NASA / Tim Williams]

A team of NASA scientists is using a high-altitude aircraft and a sophisticated imaging spectrometer to study environmental impacts caused by the devastating Southern California wildfires.

NASA’s ER-2, based at Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, flies as high as 70,000 feet (21,300 meters), almost twice as high as a commercial airliner. NASA uses the unique perspective of the ER-2 for science research missions over much of the world. This month, the aircraft has been flying locally over California, testing early versions of science instruments that may one day be launched into space on board a satellite to observe our home planet Earth.

During these engineering test flights, the aircraft carried several science instruments on board. One of them – a spectrometer called AVIRIS, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – was in the right place at the right time when fires broke out in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties on Tuesday, Dec. 4.

[This image offers landmark references to a photo captured from NASA’s ER-2 high altitude science platform when it flew over the Thomas Fire in Ventura County on Dec. 7. Credits: NASA / Tim Williams]

AVIRIS (Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer), is a modern instrument with an extensive heritage that can peer through smoke and dust to see information about the ground surface below. This includes observations of trees and other foliage that ends up being fuel for wildfires.

During a fire, the instrument can see aerosols, or particle matter, produced from the smoke, as well as the combustion process as fuel burns, and accurately measure fire temperatures.

AVIRIS can also observe fine details of vegetation, such as the water content in leaves and what types of species of plants are growing prior to a fire burning in a region. Scientists can use the instrument to fly over regions before a fire to get a base measurement of a certain area, and then fly over the same area again after a fire, then compare the before-and-after images to determine the fire’s severity.

“The vision is that these types of measurements could be available from space in the next decade. The resulting information would then be used to develop fuel maps in advance that could be used to make better predictions about where you could mitigate risk by clearing brush and trees,” said JPL’s Rob Green, principal investigator of the AVIRIS instrument.

The Ventura coastline is barely visible under a plume of smoke, as NASA’s ER-2 high altitude aircraft carrying JPL’s AVIRIS spectrometer instrument surveys the Southern California wildfires on Dec. 7. Credits: NASA / Tim Williams]

Green continued, “Additionally, if a fire starts and authorities know exactly how much fuel is present in a region, the data will enable authorities to react quicker and provide a better assessment of how to approach extinguishing the fire and protect surrounding areas.”

NASA has funded this effort as part of its ongoing research, but is sharing the data with universities and government agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California, and the University of Utah. Scientists at these organizations are working together to achieve a better understanding of response to fires, fire behavior, impacts to the carbon dynamics for the forest, total area burned, and smoke aerosols — all of which have impacts to disaster preparedness, prevention, human health and safety.

AVIRIS flew over the regions affected by the current fires during Summer 2017 and will compare those observations with current measurements of fire temperatures and burn area to explore the relationship between fuel sources and the areas now burning.  Flying these areas again in the coming months could help determine how severely the wildfires impacted the region and help quantify how plant life rejuvenates and repopulates in these areas.

For more information on AVIRIS, visit:

Edited from NASA for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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