Dozens of fires were burning in western Africa in early November, 2013. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying aboard the Aqua satellite captured this true-color image on November 7 as it passed over the region. Red dots mark the area where the thermal sensor on the MODIS instrument detected temperatures higher than normal. When combined with smoke, which can be seen rising then blowing to the east, such “hot spots” indicate actively burning fires.
Black lines have been overlain on the image to delineate political boundaries. Mauritania sits in the north, with no fires in the tan, arid land. To the south, most of the fires burn in the greener lands of Senegal (west) and Mali (east). The narrow strip in the west is The Gambia, with one hotspot. Further south, coastal Guinea-Bissau remains fire-free, while fires speckle Guinea.
The location, widespread nature, and number of fires suggest that these fires were deliberately set to manage land. Farmers often use fire to return nutrients to the soil and to clear the ground of unwanted plants. While fire helps enhance crops and grasses for pasture, the fires also produce smoke that degrades air quality. In western Africa, the agricultural burning season usually runs from November through December after the year’s primary crops are harvested.