The smoke from wildfires in Oregon and beyond is covering vast areas of US, satellites show

It's summer in the Northern Hemisphere — and that means it's fire season. Satellites are pitching in to monitor dozens of blazes nationwide.

The largest fire currently burning in the U.S. is the massive Bootleg Fire in south-central Oregon, which sparked on July 6 and currently covers more than 200,000 acres (800 square kilometers). More than 1,700 people are currently fighting the fire, which is only 5% contained, according to data from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Since the Bootleg Fire began, satellites managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been monitoring smoke pouring from the blaze and drifting across the country. Leading that effort is the GOES-17 satellite, which is stationed over the western half of the nation.

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Among other payloads, GOES-17 carries instruments that can detect heat, even that produced by small fires, as well as cameras that can image smoke, according to NOAA. The combined capabilities allow the satellite to identify new fires, monitor existing ones and watch for the floods and landslides that often follow in burned areas.

GOES-17 can also detect pyrocumulus clouds, nicknamed "fire clouds," which structurally resemble thunder clouds but form when a fire kicks heat and moisture into the atmosphere, according to NASA.

And aerosol instruments also provide information that forecasters use to estimate air quality and visibility, which can impact regions well beyond the flames.

Oregon is seeing unusually high levels of fire activity this year, considering that it is still relatively early in the season, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. The state has struggled with drought and was baked by the so-called "heat dome" that stalled over the Pacific Northwest in late June.

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But Bootleg has plenty of company: According to NOAA, as of Wednesday (July 14), 68 active fires had burned more than 1 million acres (4,000 square km) nationwide.

The largest of those conflagrations, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, are the Snake River Complex blazes in Idaho and the Beckwourth Complex blazes in California. Each of these fire complexes stem from one or more lightning strikes and has burned about 100,000 acres  (400 square km) so far.

NOAA data shared on Wednesday also depicts smoke from two other smaller fires, the Jack Fire in Oregon and the Lick Creek Fire in Washington.

The ongoing climate crisis makes wildfires more numerous and more severe, both by increasing temperatures and by decreasing moisture. Social factors, like building in unsafe areas and underpaying firefighters, are also worsening the impact of fires on humans.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.