But satellite imagery confirms what Californians are experiencing on the ground — rates of black carbon, an aerosol created by wildfires, have become particularly high in Northern California beginning on Nov. 9. [Satellite Photos of the 2018 California Wildfires]
Black carbon in a type of fine particulate matter, which is known to cause health problems in the respiratory tract and cardiovascular system. Scientists can monitor black carbon by pulling together data gathered by satellites, airplanes and systems on the ground. They also feed in weather data to understand how factors like wind and precipitation affect the aerosol.
Southern California also saw a smaller, more short-lived spike in the pollutant on Nov. 10 and 11 due to the Woolsey Fire that burned west of Los Angeles beginning on Nov. 8. That fire has been almost entirely contained, and the focus is shifting from managing the fire to dealing with its aftermath.
Satellites are assisting with that recovery process as well. NASA runs an online tool that can quickly piece together factors like vegetation and soil type and burn severity to offer a comprehensive picture of a fire, using data from satellites like Landsat, Aqua and Terra.
That picture can then be disseminated to emergency personnel to shape the response to the blaze. For example, the map of the Woolsey Fire shows how the fire devastated steep slopes. That's a concern because without vegetation holding earth in place, these areas are susceptible to landslides.
For the latest updates about these and other California blazes, go to Cal Fire's "Incidents" page.