NASA Satellites Monitor California's Blazing Wildfires from Space

As high winds and hot weather continue to fuel the wildfires in Northern California, NASA satellites are keeping an eye on the blazes from space.

A series of wildfires erupted across California's wine country on Oct. 8, and the flames have been spreading faster than firefighters have been able to put them out. 

NASA's fleet of Earth-observing satellites has been watching the flames and smoke from space. That fleet includes the Terra and Aqua satellites, Landsat 8, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. [Satellite Photos of California's Devastating Wildfires]

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra satellite acquired this image of California's wildfires and smoke plumes on the morning of Oct. 12. The red color represents vegetation, while fires and hotspots are depicted in yellow. (Image credit: NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems/ASTER Science Team)

Images from the Terra satellite's Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument show not just the locations of fires and clouds of smoke, but also the distribution of vegetation in those regions. 

"With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of 15 to 90 meters (about 50 to 300 feet), ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet," NASA officials said in a statement.

Another Earth-observing satellite, Landsat 8, got an even closer look at how the fires are affecting California. Landsat 8 created composite images of the area, combining shortwave infrared, near-infrared and green color bands with a thermal infrared signature. "These combinations make it easier to see through the smoke to the burn scars and the still-active fires," NASA officials said in the image release. 

The Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 — a satellite run by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey — acquired the data for this false-color view of the fires in Northern California on Wednesday (Oct. 11). (Image credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory/USGS)

A zoomed-in view from Landsat 8 shows the heavily burned area between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, where wildfires have torched at least 34,000 acres. (Image credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory/USGS)

The Landsat 8 images revealed some of the most prominent wildfires in the area, including the Tubbs fire between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, the Atlas fire near Lake Berryessa, and the Redwood/Potter fires near the Mendocino National Forest. 

The Suomi NPP satellite captured this view of massive smoke plumes sweeping across the U.S. as wildfires blaze in Northern California. (Image credit: Jesse Allen/NASA Earth Observatory)

While much of the northwestern U.S. has seen and smelled smoke in the air since California's wildfires began, the Suomi NPP satellite offers a broader perspective on how the smoke affects the rest of the world. "Intense blazes are lofting up so much smoke that huge plumes have been blowing across the country — and even turning up in Europe," officials with NASA's Earth Observatory wrote in a blog post

As hot, dry winds continue to fan the flames, these catastrophic wildfires will continue to spread throughout the weekend, the National Weather Service said in an advisory, adding that the fires should be easier to contain and put out once winds die down after Sunday (Oct. 15). 

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Hanneke Weitering
Contributing expert

Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.