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Satellite image shows Kincade fire burn scar

The massive burn scar from Sonoma County’s Kincade fire can be seen from space.

An image taken by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer aboard NASA’s Terra satellite on Sunday shows a checkerboard of charred land. The dark gray splotches are burned areas, and the yellow dots are hot spots where the fire is still smoldering.

Kincade fire burn scar
The burn scar of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County is shown in an image taken by the ASTER instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite on Nov. 3.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The blaze has burned 77,758 acres and destroyed 374 structures since it broke out Oct. 23. It was 84% contained as of Tuesday morning. Investigators haven’t determined what started the fire, but Pacific Gas & Electric has said that transmission lines experienced problems around the area where the fire broke out.

The composite that shows the burn scar was created by superimposing thermal infrared channels, which show heat, onto an image of the area that’s similar to what you’d see with the naked eye, said Michael J. Abrams, a NASA researcher and U.S. leader of the ASTER project.

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Satellite images like these can help officials decide how to handle remediation in the aftermath of a destructive blaze.

“After a fire burns, the people who are in charge — let’s say, the Forest Service — they need to know, is an area just slightly burned, where trees will recover and secondary vegetation will come up by itself?” Abrams said. “Or at the other extreme, temperatures can get so hot the ground is baked and becomes nonpermeable so rainwater can’t get in, and it’s very difficult for things to start growing. The ways that managers have to deal with those situations would be different.”

ASTER is one of five Earth observation instruments aboard the Terra satellite, which will celebrate 20 years in orbit next month. The ASTER project is conducted by the United States and Japan. The two countries recently extended an agreement to operate and monitor the instrument for seven more years.

Another instrument aboard the satellite, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, contributes to a warning system that can detect the presence of fire in remote areas.

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“The satellite gets an image every day or two days, and they have an automatic system now for deciding where there is a hot spot that could be a fire,” Abrams said.

Governments and emergency authorities can subscribe to a service that notifies them by email or text message when the system detects a fire in their area, he said.

When the satellite’s orbit allows it to turn around images quickly enough, NASA will also provide them to first responders battling a blaze so they can view the fire front and map out strategy, Abrams said.

Firefighters continued Tuesday to get a handle on fires elsewhere in California.

The Maria fire, which broke out atop South Mountain, just south of Santa Paula, on Thursday, is 95% contained after burning 9,999 acres and destroying four structures. Southern California Edison said Friday that it re-energized a 16,000-volt power line minutes before the fire broke out along a nearby hilltop.

The Getty fire is 96% contained, having burned 745 acres and destroyed 10 homes since it ignited along the 405 Freeway near the Getty Center on Oct. 28. The fire was started by a tree branch that fell on power lines operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, officials have said.

The 4,615-acre Tick fire in the Santa Clarita area and the 1,806-acre Easy fire in Simi Valley are 100% contained. The Tick fire destroyed at least 29 structures, and there’s no word yet on the cause. Southern California Edison has confirmed that the Easy fire, which destroyed at least two structures, broke out in its service territory near one of its subtransmission lines, which was not de-energized at the time the fire started.


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