Sentinels in the Sky

NOAA Satellites Support Battle Against California Wildfires

Forest fire.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA satellites are closely tracking the movement and smoke plumes from devastating wildfires that scorched at least 122,000 acres in Southern California since they began in August.

From space, NOAA’s geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites — known as GEOS and POES, respectively — detect and monitor wildfires, and provide invaluable information to NOAA’s incident meteorologists and firefighters on the ground. Each day, NOAA’s satellites provide hundreds of images of the fires that pinpoint their exact position, size, and direction.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

MODIS satellite image showing dense smoke from Station fire in Los Angeles County.

MODIS satellite image showing dense smoke from Station fire in Los Angeles County (Aug. 31, 2009).

High resolution (Credit: NOAA, NASA)

At NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md., data and images of the wildfires are captured from the spacecraft. 

“NOAA satellites see the situation overhead and can tell us where the fires are — even down to the location of potential trouble areas,” said Heath Hockenberry, a fire weather program leader at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The Satellite Services Division of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service produce and package the fire and smoke information that is eventually used by NOAA’s National Weather Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state and local land and air quality managers to develop fire weather forecasts.

“These satellite images are frequently used to bring greater situational awareness to the incident meteorologist at the site of a fire,” said John Simko, a meteorologist in NOAA’s Satellite Analysis Branch. “The satellite data provides government officials with an overview of the fire situation and can be used, with other data, to help position resources to the areas most in need.”

Hazard Mapping System staff reviewing satellite data.

Hazard Mapping System staff reviewing satellite data.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Reading the Smoke Signals

Along with satellite coverage, part of NOAA’s operational fire and smoke program includes the Hazard Mapping System (HMS), which spots the wildfires and tracks the smoke they emit.  The HMS uses NOAA and NASA satellites to follow smoke from all wildfires burning throughout North America and highlights the ones producing the most smoke.

A small team of meteorologists at NOAA’s World Weather Building in Camp Springs, Md., monitor swirling smoke plumes. They use satellite imagery to identify the thickest areas of smoke, which can travel thousands of miles from the source of the fire. The HMS data, which is incorporated into air quality forecast models, provides critical smoke forecasts for the following 48 hours.

“The smoke from these fires can be extremely harmful to air quality, which is a major threat to public health and public safety,” Simko said. 

Watch NOAA animation: Satellite Monitoring of California Wildfires.

Learn more about the role of NOAA satellites from NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service. NOAA logo.