Watch California's largest wildfire of the year spawn a massive 'fire cloud' visible from space

The McKinney wildfire as seen from space. Large white clouds can be seen forming from plumes of smoke on the ground in a satellite image.
The McKinney wildfire as seen from space in images shared by NOAA on Monday (Aug. 1). (Image credit: NOAA)

Weather satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have revealed "explosive growth" in a massive wildfire currently burning in northern California.

Images captured by NOAA's GOES 17 satellite and shared by the agency on Twitter show multiple plumes of smoke forming and spreading throughout the satellite's observation area during a nine-hour period on Saturday and Sunday (July 30 and 31). "The wildfire has become California's largest fire of 2022, scorching more than 50,000 acres as thousands of residents are forced to evacuate," NOAA tweeted along with the images.

The wildfire, known as the McKinney Fire, has consumed over 50,000 acres (20,200 hectares) in the Klamath National Forest near the California-Oregon border. The blaze was exacerbated by drought conditions, powerful winds and high temperatures throughout the region, according to according to The New York Times. More than 2,000 residents have fled the area due to the conflagration, and two deaths so far have been reported as a result of the fire, the New York Times reports.

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The McKinney fire generated what is known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, or "fire cloud" — essentially, a thunderstorm created by the heat, moisture and pollutants that fires send can upwards into the atmosphere. These fire clouds can then, in turn, produce lightning strikes that create even more wildfires. For this reason, NASA calls these storms the "fire-breathing dragon of clouds."

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Additional satellite imagery shared by Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, shows the formation of the massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud 50,000 feet (15.25 kilometers) tall that channels smoke into the atmosphere.

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The McKinney fire was zero percent contained as of Monday (Aug. 1) morning, according to California's fire agency. The National Weather Service issued another red flag warning Monday, meaning there is still a risk of further wildfires in the area due to "abundant lightning on dry fuels."

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Brett Tingley
Managing Editor,

Brett is curious about emerging aerospace technologies, alternative launch concepts, military space developments and uncrewed aircraft systems. Brett's work has appeared on Scientific American, The War Zone, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett enjoys skywatching throughout the dark skies of the Appalachian mountains.