MODIS Observations of Recent California Wildfires

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, aboard the NASA Earth Observing Satellites (Aqua and Terra) obtain images of the Earth across 36 spectral bands of varying resolution, and recently observed the extensive burn area associated with the “Station Fire” north of Los Angeles, California.  As of this writing, CNN reports that the fire has burned more than 100,000 acres and destroyed 10,000 homes, 500 businesses and 2,000 other structures.  More than 3,000 firefighters are fighting the blaze, and two have fallen in the line of duty.  It is expected that the blaze will continue for another week, although cooler temperatures will help containment efforts.

The SPoRT Center provides MODIS imagery to partner forecast offices in the National Weather Service for display in AWIPS, and is involved in development efforts for the next generation AWIPS 2.  The use of near-infrared wavelengths allows for the detection of “hot spots”, which appear black, while visible imagery detects the white and gray smoke plume associated with the active fire.  Future visible images will undoubtedly show the charred terrain remaining once the smoke has cleared.

In this 21:17 UTC image obtained from MODIS on 29 August 2009, the Station Wildfire is displayed in the AWIPS environment using a blended image of the MODIS 3.9 micron (near infrared) and visible image at 1 km resolution. The expansive fire appears as a dark region (hot spots) to the south of the smoke plume, which extends north-northeast of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

As in the previous figure but valid at 21:04 UTC on 31 August 2009. The extensive burn area and hot spot region has grown slightly, although the center of the massive hot spot region is partially obscured by the smoke plume. Note that the orientation of the smoke plume has drifted to the northeast with changes in upper level winds.

Reports of smoke and ash from the extensive wildfire plume have lead to the issuance of an air quality advisory across parts of Ventura County, CA.  Remote sensors such as MODIS and similar capabilities from GOES instruments allow for the detection of expansive smoke plumes that may go undetected by traditional surface instrumentation.  Inclusion of MODIS imagery within decision support systems provides high resolution detail in combination with true color imagery to monitor the return of vegetation within burn areas, which impacts surface erosion, the stability of soils, and flash flooding potential.  For additional satellite images related to the Station Fire, see another entry from the CIMMS Satellite Blog.

True color imagery with a wider scope show that the smoke plume exists over several miles northeast of the fire, spanning the width of California and approaching Nevada.  In addition, another active wildfire is present in southwestern Utah.  The Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) provides shapefiles of active wildfire pixels that can be used with geographic information systems, and SPoRT is exploring their use within the AWIPS 2 system to assist forecast offices with wildfire monitoring.

This MODIS true color image valid at the same time as the image above shows the full extent of the smoke plume associated with the Station Fire near Los Angeles, as well as another active fire in southwestern Utah.

One thought on “MODIS Observations of Recent California Wildfires

  1. Andrew, these are very interesting images and certainly give a sense of the scope of this fire. WFO Miami has used this image combination of the 3.9 micron and true color composite in a similar manner to detect wildfires in the remote parts of the Florida Everglades and then track the smoke plumes in order to issue air quality or visibility alerts.

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