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Earth from Orbit: Wildfire Smoke Blankets U.S.

July 15, 2021
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Wildfire activity amid extreme heat and drought has resulted in smoke blanketing much of the United States and Canada. As of July 14, 2021, 68 active large fires in 12 states have burned more than one million acres of land in the U.S. To date in 2021, more than 34,000 fires have burned more than two million acres. This is the most fires in the January to July time period since 2011. July is relatively early to see wildfire activity of this magnitude. 

NOAA satellites are monitoring the fires, their smoke output, and air quality effects from the smoke. The fires are injecting smoke 40,000 feet into the atmosphere and compromising air quality.

The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon is currently the nation’s largest active fire. This large, rapidly growing fire began on July 6 and had burned 212,377 acres as of July 14. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued an air quality advisory for south-central and northeastern Oregon through July 16. InciWeb warned that the fire will continue to be extremely active, fueled by extreme drought conditions, low humidity, and high temperatures. 

The ability of GOES-16 (GOES East) and GOES-17 (GOES West) to monitor smoke plumes in near-real time is particularly useful in directing firefighting efforts from the air. Deploying airplanes and helicopters to spray fire retardant is often hampered due to poor visibility. GOES-16 can help guide decisions for deploying flights by providing information on the exact location and motion of smoke from a fire. The smoke detection and monitoring information also enable better air quality forecasts.  

GOES-16 and GOES-17 aerosol optical depth (AOD) data from July 13 showed thick smoke from fires burning in the western U.S. and western and central Canada degrading air quality, especially in Idaho, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington. High concentrations of aerosols, when inhaled, can lead to upper respiratory diseases including asthma. They decrease visibility and lead to unsafe conditions for transportation. GOES AOD measures the amount of light lost due to the presence of aerosols on a vertical path through the atmosphere. GOES satellites provide this information every five minutes. This AOD data aids meteorologists and others in making critical air quality, visibility, and aviation forecasts. 

Suomi NPP and NOAA-20, satellites in the Joint Polar Satellite System, fly over each area of the globe twice a day, collecting data and high-resolution imagery of wildfires and smoke. Like the GOES satellites, Suomi NPP and NOAA-20 collect aerosol optical depth data. Although they only fly over twice per day, the data they collect is higher resolution and can show more details to help inform fire response and air quality warnings. In the northern latitudes, toward the poles, the satellites may fly over the same area more than once a day, due to their orbit. This has helped to collect data about the wildfires in Canada, and resulting aerosols in the atmosphere, more frequently. Aerosols from fires in Ontario and Manitoba, in particular, have drifted over Minnesota and other states in the northern Midwest. 

Additionally, Suomi NPP and NOAA-20 capture information about a fire’s intensity, which is one of the key inputs in the High-Resolution Rapid Refresh-Smoke forecast model. This model maps the height and thickness of wildfire smoke and predicts its movement. It is the first weather forecast model in the U.S. to include smoke’s impact on weather, and it has become a vital resource for fire crews, air traffic controllers, local forecasters, and even school administrators. 

During wildfires, first responders and air traffic controllers rely on HRRR-Smoke for visibility. Fire crews consult it when deciding where to pitch base camps or to stage resources. And after a fire passes through, EPA crew workers use it to determine whether the smoke has lifted enough to travel to burned areas to clean up hazardous waste. 

HRRR-smoke runs around the clock, producing a new weather and smoke forecast every hour and providing forecasts up to 48 hours into the future. 

NOAA satellite observations are not just valuable for detecting and monitoring wildfires, but are also critical to observing and monitoring smoke from those fires, aiding forecasters, decision-makers, and first responders. 


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