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Satellites watch devastating fires blaze across northern New Mexico

This satellite image shows a natural color view of wildfires raging at Hermit's Peak (near Las Vegas) on May 12, 2022.
This satellite image shows a natural color view of wildfires raging at Hermit's Peak (near Las Vegas) on May 12, 2022. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

Devastating wildfires in New Mexico fueled by high winds are visible from space.

Fresh satellite images from Maxar Technologies caught a portion of the 200,000 burning acres associated with the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires, east of Santa Fe. On Monday (May 9), the New York Times (opens in new tab) listed this set of New Mexico blazes as the largest active wildfire in the United States; according to a collection of state agencies (opens in new tab), the fire was nearly 30% contained as of May 13.

Going into the observations, Maxar personnel wanted capture three types of images to view different aspects of the blaze: natural color, color infrared and shortwave infrared.

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

Infrared imaging allows satellites to chart the heat signature of the blaze, which can assist investigators with making predictions about the wildfire's path. Shortwave infrared can "penetrate through the smoke and detect active fire lines and hot spots," Maxar officials wrote. During a fire, hot spots are especially crucial to address if possible to contain the spread. 

"With color infrared satellite imagery, healthy trees and vegetation appear in shades of red/pink while burned areas appear in shades of black/grey," Maxar said of the imagery. 

Tendrils of New Mexico wildfires are visible by satellite on May 11, 2022. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

"With SWIR [shortwave infrared] satellite images, Maxar's imagery sensor can penetrate through the smoke and detect active fire lines and hot spots, which appear to glow in an orange/yellow color," personnel added. "Burned vegetation appears in a rust/orange color in the SWIR imagery."

Wildfires are getting more devastating and powerful worldwide amid global warming. Record-breaking blazes were recorded in 2021 on at least continents.

A shortwave infrared view shows the intense heat associated with New Mexico wildfires, in this satellite image obtained May 11, 2022. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

One of the tools by which we monitor these wildfires is by using Earth observation satellites, including both those operated by private companies and by governments. The goal is to ferry information as quickly as possible to decision-makers on the ground to guide response measures and assist affected populations.

Some companies attempt to parse a portion of the data through methods such as machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to find the most relevant information to pass along even more quickly.

Widespread wildfires are not only harmful to local populations, but fire-related emissions of greenhouse gases and the devastation to the landscape can produce long-term consequences for the environment.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.