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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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab)."

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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 (opens in new tab). The National Weather Service issued (opens in new tab) 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
Brett Tingley

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English from Clemson University and a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.