Satellites watch record-breaking fires ravage New Mexico

This natural-color image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite captures large plumes of smoke billowing over Las Vegas and Los Alamos, New Mexico.
This natural-color image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite captures large plumes of smoke billowing over Las Vegas and Los Alamos, New Mexico. (Image credit: Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview)

Satellites have captured stunning new views of the early season wildfires raging across northern New Mexico since mid-April. 

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite snapped an aerial view of the wildfires on Tuesday (May 3). The natural-color image captures large plumes of smoke billowing over Los Alamos and the neighboring city of Las Vegas, New Mexico. 

"The blazes have been driven by high winds, low humidity and exceptionally dry tinder — grass, brush and timber — that are providing ample fuel for burning," according to a statement from NASA Earth Observatory. "The fires have destroyed hundreds of structures and prompted the evacuation of thousands of homes." 

Related: Astronaut watches California wildfires spewing smoke from space (photos)

As of Tuesday, there are seven large fires burning across the state and emergency declarations and evacuation orders have been issued in several threatened counties due to recent dry, windy conditions. 

Currently, more than a thousand firefighters are battling the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak wildfires, which started on April 22 and April 23. The Hermits Peak fire began as a prescribed burn in part of the Santa Fe National Forest on April 6, but grew out of control due to strong winds in the area. Having now burned more than 145,000 acres (587 square kilometers) east of Santa Fe as of May 3, the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fires have broken the state's record for largest wildfires. 

The Cerro Pelado fire, located southwest of Los Alamos, started on April 22 and has burned more than 25,000 acres (100 square kilometers) as of May 3. High winds continue to push the fire to the northeast and southeast. As a result, nearby communities were asked to evacuate and the Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument are closed until further notice, according to the statement.

Meanwhile, the Cooks Peak fire, which started on April 17, is raging about 50 miles (80 km) north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and has burned more than 60,000 acres (240 square kilometers). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) NOAA-20 satellite captured these four fires in a striking satellite view, which they shared on Twitter on Wednesday (May 4). 

"This color-enhanced image from #NOAA20 on May 3 shows the rust-colored heat signatures from the #CerroPeladoFire, #CalfCanyonFire/#HermitsPeakFire and the #CooksPeakFire in New Mexico. Combined, these 3 fires have burned more than 245,000 acres," NOAA officials wrote in the tweet. 

New Mexico is experiencing a severe drought due to extreme dryness in the area, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor on April 26. So far, 211 fires have occurred across the state this year, burning a total of 230,000 acres (930 square kilometers). This area is nearly double last year's total of 672 fires that burned nearly 124,000 acres (500 square kilometers), according to the statement. 

The MODIS sensors on NASA's Aqua satellite also spotted massive burn scars left by the large fires. These appear as black, brown or brick red streaks in the photo, compared to the bright green vegetation, blue water and tan land areas. 

Many satellites and instruments are used to detect and monitor actively burning fires. In turn, satellites aid in tracking the distribution of smoke and mapping the extent and severity of fires as they spread. This data is imperative for fire managers and teams fighting to control the blaze. NASA satellites will continue to monitor the New Mexico wildfires from space. 

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.