Incredible satellite photos of Southern California’s wildfires show the disaster’s evolution from space

Wildfires leave behind scar (black) while burning up plants and buildings (red) in Ventura County, California, on Dec. 8, 2017.

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Wildfires leave behind scar (black) while burning up plants and buildings (red) in Ventura County, California, on Dec. 8, 2017.
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Deimos Imaging/UrtheCast

While the most destructive wildfire season in California’s history slogs on, satellites are recording the devastation from space.

California’s latest group of blazes began with the Thomas fire in Ventura County on December 4. Since then, at least six other large fires sparked across the Southern California counties of Los Angeles (Creek, Rye, and Skirball fires), San Bernardino (Little Mountain fire), San Diego (Lilac fire), and Riverside (Liberty fire).

The Thomas fire in Ventura County is by far the largest at more than 230,000 acres in size, and it’s only about 15% contained as of Monday morning. It continues to burn along with four other fires that are spreading due to strong Santa Ana winds, which peak during December and January.

The new blazes have triggered the evacuation of almost 100,000 people, killed at least one person, razed some 1,000 buildings, and scorched more than 250,000 acres of land. This ongoing disaster in Southern California also joins the deadly wildfires across Northern California in October that killed 42 people, destroyed 9,000 structures, and may take the state years to recover from.

Thick smoke and intense heat make it difficult for low-flying aircraft to capture the extent of a wildfire’s damage. However, a few satellites with high-power cameras and special sensors offer unique and detailed views of the evolving disaster from space.

Here’s what they’ve recorded so far, plus a few incredible images taken by astronauts in space:


Shortly after the fires started, satellites passing over Southern California began watching the blazes develop.

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NASA/ESA

This view is from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite. It shows Ventura County, which is about a 1.5-hour drive northwest of Los Angeles, on December 5.

Brown shows the burn scar (center), green shows plants, gray shows urban areas, and orange shows active fires.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory


The smoke from the wildfires wafted over the Pacific Ocean for hundreds of miles.

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Wildfires burn in Southern California on Dec. 5, 2017.
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NASA

NASA’s Terra satellite shows the Thomas fire in Ventura County on the afternoon of December 5.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory


Astronaut Randy Bresnik also began taking photographs as the Thomas fire developed and new blazes broke out.

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The Southern California wildfires as seen on December 7, 2017.
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Rand Bresnik/NASA via Twitter

Source: Randy Bresknik/Twitter


From his perch aboard the International Space Station, which orbits Earth about 250 miles high, Bresnik caught these incredible views on December 7.

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Rand Bresnik/NASA via Twitter

Source: Randy Bresknik/Twitter


North is toward the left in this photo, and it shows multiple fires and their extensive smoke trails. Even blazes in Mexico (right) are visible.

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Rand Bresnik/NASA via Twitter

Source: Randy Bresknik/Twitter


NASA used its Suomi NPP satellite, which can see in near-infrared, to record this animation of the Ventura fires over five nights, from December 4-8.

White shows the fires chewing through the landscape and buildings and growing in extent.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory


DigitalGlobe, a satellite-imaging company, took this photo on December 6 with its WorldView-3 satellite. This version shows the San Fernando hills in natural color…

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Copyright DigitalGlobe

… While this version shows the same view at the same time, yet cuts through the smoke with an infrared sensor.

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Copyright DigitalGlobe

Orange shows active fires, light brown shows burn scar, and blue-gray shows unburned plants and structures.


DigitalGlobe shares its detailed imagery with emergency personnel, insurance companies, and others who keep track of the spreading fires. This view centers on the city of Mira Monte in eastern Ventura County and covers an area of about 8 miles by 11 miles.

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Copyright DigitalGlobe

The towns of Wheeler Springs and Ojala are to the north, where large blazes were burning at the time.

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Copyright DigitalGlobe

Lake Casitas, in the southwest, saw a fresh line of fires eating through the landscape.

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Copyright DigitalGlobe

While Southern California’s fires rage on, the National Weather Service has issued red-flag-warning areas in three different states. Exceptional dryness, a lot of fuel, and strong winds make these areas rip for “extreme fire behavior.”

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A map showing high-risk areas for fires on December 11, 2017.
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Cal Fire/Google Maps

Source: Cal Fire