John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Nighttime images show the gradual spread of the tremendous wildfire, which is burning brighter than the city lights of Reno.
Viewed from 512 miles above, California's rampaging Rim Fire looks kind of like a classy cigarette ad, with a glowing ember giving off light wisps of smoke. That's deceptive. The largely uncontrolled inferno is now the seventh largest wildfire on record in the state, threatening thousands of buildings and burning brighter than the city lights of Reno.
The fire has consumed about 180,000 acres since it flared up on August 17 due to an unknown trigger, creating a cinder field that's become much larger than Chicago. Nearly 3,800 fire-fighting personnel are struggling to contain it, according to InciWeb, and as of Tuesday evening they'd managed to put the breakers on about one-fifth of the conflagration. As noted on this site yesterday, the storm of flames and glowing-yellow smoke achieve an Old Testament vehemence:
The fire has started to dig deeper into Yosemite National Park, reducing at least one campsite to ashes and putting in peril more than 4,000 structures. Its slow but steady creep into one of America's most beloved romping grounds is clear in the above series of images shot by NASA's Suomi satellite. The high-flyer has an instrument that excels at snapping nighttime scenes – here it's displaying how the Rim Fire has changed shape from August 23 to August 26, sending fiery spears into Yosemite that defy the massive effort firefighters are pouring into managing the blaze.
Their hard work has had some beneficial effect on controlling the fire, as NASA points out in this play-by-play of the satellite images:
The perimeter of the fire grows from day to day along different fronts, depending on winds and firefighting efforts. On August 24, firefighters focused their efforts on containing the western edge of the fire to prevent it from burning into Tuolumne City and the populated Highway 108 corridor. They also fought the eastern edge of the fire to protect Yosemite National Park. These efforts are evident in the image: Between August 23 and 24, the eastern edge of the fire held steady, and the western edge receded. The fire grew in the southeast.
On the morning of August 25 fire managers reported that the blaze was growing in the north and east. In the image, the most intense activity is just inside Yosemite National Park.
Firefighters reported that the Rim Fire continued to be extremely active on its eastern front on the morning of August 26, and this activity is visible in the image. By 8:00 a.m., the fire had burned 149,780 acres and forced firefighters in Yosemite National Park to take measures to protect the Merced and Tuolumne Groves of Giant Sequoias. However, the National Park Service reported that the trees were not in imminent danger. While parts of Yosemite National Park are closed, webcams show that most of the park has not been affected.
There was consternation among San Franciscans that the wildfire could contaminate their key drinking-water source, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, with falling drifts of noxious ash. That hadn't happened yet as of last night, with water-quality tests coming back clean.
While the eyes of the media are all on the Rim Fire, it's not like this year hasn't seen other impressive blazes. As the folks at NOAA recently noted, the first half of 2013 was marked by great outbreaks of flame across the country.
Much of it was due to (controlled) springtime agricultural burning in the Southeast and summer oil-field fires in the Plains, with drought conditions leading to late-summer outbreaks in the Rockies, the Sierras down to Mexico, and the boreal forests in Canada. Have a look at this smoldering map, put together with thermal satellite data, showing 323,828 "fire targets" as the nation's finest space machines saw them. The map is color-coded like so...
...with lighter colors representing earlier fires and later ones shown in darker orange: