September 11, 2020 - Fires in the Western United States

West Coast Fires

A massive cloud of smoke, which covered an area over four times the area of California, rose from many dozens of fires across the West Coast of the United States and blanketed not only the coast, but much of the Pacific Ocean. According to measurements taken from the NASA Worldview App, the smoke covered roughly 700,000 square miles (1,812,992 square km) on September 10, 2020, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this true-color image of the scene. The image contains data from collected during two passes of the satellite – the cloud was too large to capture on a single pass.

Scorching summer temperatures, extremely dry air, and strong winds have combined to create a vicious fire season along the West Coast of the United States. In mid-August, a series of lightning strikes sparked dozens of fires in tinder-dry vegetation across California, starting significant infernos. In the same time frame, lightning-sparked fires also sprung up in Washington, Oregon, and other Western states. By the end of the first week of September, a weather front that drew unseasonably cold air into the Rocky Mountains also set up an atmospheric pressure gradient that sent dry, gusty winds barreling down the downwind slopes of mountain ranges in several western states, fanning the flames and creating a truly massive cloud of smoke that has turned skies red, dropped ash on cars and buildings, and created respiratory hazards for those living in the region.

According to Cal Fire, since the beginning of the year, wildfires have now burned over 3.1 million acres in California, with 12 fatalities and over 3,900 structures destroyed. This has been a record-breaking year, both in the amount of acres burned and in the fact that 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred this year: #1 is the August Complex, #3 SCU Lightning Complex, #4 LNU Lightning Complex, #9 the Elkhorn Fire, #10 the North Complex, and the Creek Fire comes in at #17. The August Complex had burned 746,607 acres as of September 10 and was only 20% contained.

The blazes in Washington and Oregon, which have roared to a dramatic expansion over the last several days, thanks to ferocious winds, are also setting records. Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington, was reported to have said that more acres were burned in the state on Monday (September 7) than were charred in the past 12 fire seasons. In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown reported that the blazes had consumed more than 900,000 acres by September 10, and that the worst fire conditions in three decades persist. While most of the blazes appear to have been from natural causes, it has been reported that arson is suspected in Oregon’s Alameda fire, which has heavily damaged least two towns.

Image Facts
Satellite: Terra
Date Acquired: 9/10/2020
Resolutions: 1km (1 MB), 500m (3.3 MB),
Bands Used: 1,4,3
Image Credit: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC