Flying through a pyrocumulonimbus cloud

NASA Earth Observatory image Williams Flats Fire
NASA Earth Observatory image of the Williams Flats Fire by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

(This article first appeared at earthobservatory.nasa.gov)

Atmospheric scientists regularly take note when satellites detect thunderheads rising above columns of wildfire smoke. These “fire clouds”—experts call them pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) or cumulonimbus flammagenitus—are caused when fires loft enough heat and moisture into the atmosphere to produce thunderstorms.

On August 8, 2019, a team of atmospheric scientists got an exceedingly rare look at these clouds as they were forming. NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory passed directly through a large pyrocumulonimbus that day as it was rising from a fire in eastern Washington. The flight was part of a joint NOAA and NASA field campaign called FIREX-AQ. Scientists are studying the composition and chemistry of smoke to better understand its impact on air quality and climate.

Williams Flats Fire
August 8 photo by David Peterson (U.S. Naval Research Laboratory).

David Peterson, lead forecaster for FIREX-AQ, was in the cockpit of NASA’s DC-8. “The views were absolutely stunning,” said Peterson. “Very few photographs of large pyroCbs are available, especially from the air.”

The photograph above, shot from roughly 30,000 feet (9 kilometers), shows the setting Sun shining through thick smoke at 8 p.m. Mountain Time. Particles in the smoke reflect light in ways that make the Sun appear orange. The photograph below shows the smoke plume (gray) that fed the pyrocumulonimbus cloud (white).

The flight was the most detailed sampling of a pyrocumulonimbus in history, explained Peterson. A second research aircraft flew over the plume a few hours earlier in the day, and mobile labs on the ground also made detailed measurements.

Williams Flats Fire
August 8 photo by David Peterson (U.S. Naval Research Laboratory).

“PyroCb are like large chimneys, transporting a large quantity of smoke into the lower stratosphere,” explained Peterson.

When smoke does reach the stratosphere, it tends to spread globally and remain high in the atmosphere for longer periods—months or even years—than smoke that stays in the lower troposphere. One recent study concluded that the largest fire clouds can even lift quantities of smoke aerosols into the lower stratosphere that are comparable to a moderate-sized volcanic eruption.

An early morning thunderstorm ignited the Williams Flats Fire on August 2, 2019. The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired a natural-color image of the blaze (at the top of the page) as it approached the north bank of the Columbia River on August 7, 2019. The image is natural color (OLI bands 4-3-2), overlaid with the infrared and shortwave infrared signature of actively burning fires.

Story by Adam Voiland of NASA Earth Observatory.

Goose Fire burning from Nevada toward Idaho

Little Goos Fire map
Map showing the location of the Little Goose Fire in Northeast Nevada at 1:36 p.m. MDT August 5, 2019.

A fire that was reported at 6:23 p.m. Sunday August 4 in the Northeast corner of Nevada has been burning vigorously on Monday. Heat detected by a satellite at 1:36 p.m. (see map above) showed it to be moving north and had spread to within a mile of the Nevada/Idaho border. In later satellite photos it appeared to have approached the border and was generating pyrocumulus clouds. By the time you read this there is a good chance it will have burned into Idaho.

The BLM reported at about 6 p.m. Monday that it was a full suppression fire and had burned 3,500 acres.

At various times it was called “Goose Fire” and “Little Goose Fire”. Just plain “Goose Fire” seemed to be winning out by late Monday afternoon.

At about 4:40 p.m. MDT FlightRadar showed four single engine air tankers from Twin Falls and Tanker 911, a DC-10 from Pocatello, flying in the vicinity of the Goose Fire. A NOAA research Twin Otter also showed up, flying a grid pattern — NOAA46 (N46RF), that was most likely analyzing the atmosphere over the fire. NOAA has a fleet of nine aircraft that conduct airborne environmental data gathering missions. Later after the first NOAA Twin Otter departed, another NOAA Twin Otter was over the fire, NOAA48.

Little Goose Fire map aircraft
Map showing aircraft near the Little Goose Fire in Northeast Nevada at 5:37 p.m. PDT August 5, 2019. NOAA46 (N46RF)

Woodbury Fire in Arizona adds another 4,000 acres

The fire is 12 miles east of the Phoenix suburbs

satellite photo Woodbury Fire Phoenix Arizona
Satellite photo of smoke from the Woodbury Fire east of Phoenix, Arizona at 7:31 p.m. MDT, June 18, 2019.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today, including the most recent, click HERE.)

The Woodbury Fire 12 miles east of the Phoenix suburbs became very active on the northeast side Tuesday beginning at about 2 p.m., sending up another large column of smoke that blew off to the northeast. It added another 3,894 acres to bring the total up to 44,451 acres.

Tanker 101 tanker 914 Woodbury Fire phoenix
The convection column at the Woodbury Fire shows the beginning of condensation at the top, becoming a pyrocumulus cloud. Tanker 914, a DC-10 is in the foreground, with Tanker 101, an MD87. Photo taken at Phoenix Gateway Airport at 3:18 p.m. MST June 18, 2019. Photo by Ty Miller.

On Wednesday fire crews are preparing for the possibility of the fire moving north towards Roosevelt and east towards the Pinto Mine along Pinto Canyon. Firefighters will be using burnouts and existing black lines to divert fire from the Reavis Ranch, Roosevelt, and mining operations. They will continue the preparations along 500 KV power lines to make them more defensible, masticating brush and building bulldozer lines where appropriate.

Map of the perimeter Woodbury Fire Phoenix Arizona
Map of the perimeter of the Woodbury Fire at 10:41 p.m. MST June 18, 2019.

The smoke is expected to spread to the east on Saturday, becoming noticeable in Southern New Mexico and Western Texas.

wildfire smoke forecast June 19, 2019
The smoke from the Woodbury Fire is expected to blow off to the east on Wednesday into Southern New Mexico and Western Texas. The map depicts the forecast for 6 p.m. MDT June 19, 2019.

A better look at the pyrocumulus over the Chuckegg Creek Fire in Alberta

Compare two satellite images

These May 26 images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite were processed by Jess Clark of the Forest Service Geospatial Technology and Applications Center. They highlight the northern portion of the Chuckegg Creek Fire in Northern Alberta that has burned 130,000 hectares (321,000 acres).

In an article yesterday, May 27, we posted a low-resolution satellite image of the fire in which we pointed out shadows cast by towering pyrocumulus clouds over areas that were burning intensely. These photos that Mr. Clark sent are more zoomed in and have higher resolution.

satellite photo Chuckegg fire May 26 2019
Satellite photo of the Chuckegg Creek Fire May 26, 2019 processed by Jess Clark, USFS. Visible bands. Click to enlarge.

The photo we posted yesterday and the one above utilize the bands of light that are visible to the naked eye and are what you would see if you were flying over the fire 50 miles above the ground.

The false color image below uses bands that minimized the appearance of smoke, enhanced water vapor in the pyrocumulus, and highlighted heat from the fire.

satellite photo Chuckegg fire May 26 2019
Satellite photo of the Chuckegg Creek Fire May 26, 2019 processed by Jess Clark, USFS. Enhancing water vapor, heat, and minimizing smoke. Click to enlarge.

Mr. Clark explained the utility of these images:

“This really highlights just how important multispectral imaging is for those of us interested in seeing fire effects and extent on the ground. The National Infrared Operations Program (NIROPS) maps fire extent on a tactical basis with much higher resolution aerial imagery, but there are occasions when this space-based data helps corroborate or clarify the data NIROPS interpreters couldn’t see. Our main use of imagery like what I’ve attached is for severity mapping after the fire’s out to aid emergency response teams (BAER) in their mitigation planning efforts. It’s also used by the silviculture folks as they plan reforestation efforts, if appropriate.”

Firefighters continue to defend High Level, Alberta

The Chuckegg Creek Fire has burned more than a quarter-million acres

aerial photo Chuckegg Creek Fire alberta
The Chuckegg Creek Fire, looking west along highway 58, west of High Level, Alberta on Saturday evening, May 25, 2019. (photograph by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta).

 

(Originally published at 10:15 a.m. MDT May 27, 2019)

The Chuckegg Creek Fire in northern Alberta has burned more than a quarter-million acres just west of the town of High Level. Alberta Wildfire announced Sunday that they estimate it has grown to 107,000 hectares, or 264,000 acres. (UPDATE at 2:38 p.m. MDT May 27: Alberta Fire now says the fire has burned 127,000 hectares [314,000 acres – almost one-third of a million].)

(To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Chuckegg Creek Fire, including the most recent, click here.)

Dry conditions and the lack of recent precipitation has caused the blaze to grow significantly on Sunday. Pushed by a wind out of the west, large pyrocumulus clouds formed over the fire north of Highway 58 casting shadows that could be seen in the satellite photo below.

Chuckegg Creek Fire Alberta satellite photo
Satellite photo of the Chuckegg Creek Fire near High Level, Alberta May 26, 2019. The arrows point to a shadow caused by high, towering pyrocumulus clouds caused by intense burning. The red dots represent heat.
map Chuckegg Creek Fire Alberta
Map showing heat detected by a satellite on the Chuckegg Creek Fire near High Level, Alberta during the seven days prior to May 27, 2019.

The weather forecast for Monday calls for moderate south and southeast winds which should cause most of the spread to be on the west and northwest sides, but Tuesday and Wednesday should bring stronger winds out of the west and northwest along with humidities in the 20s. The high temperature will be 91F (33C) on Tuesday. If the fuels north of highway 58 and northwest of High Level are conducive to burning, the fire could grow closer to the town under those conditions.

weather forecast Chuckegg Creek Fire
Weather forecast for High Level, Alberta, Tuesday May 28, 2019. Temperature shown in Centigrade.

Below are excerpts from a Sunday evening update by Alberta Wildfire:


Today’s weather conditions led to increased wildfire activity. Extreme fire behaviour was observed on the north and west sides of the fire, away from the town. The weather also created challenges along the established fire guard. Wildfire and Structural firefighters were active on controlling hotspots along the fire perimeter in the priority areas around High Level. Airtankers worked today to drop fire retardant to reinforce the fire guard that heavy equipment and firefighters placed to protect the community and infrastructure.

The weather forecast tomorrow expects a cold front to arrive, bringing dry conditions and variable winds. This forecast will produce extreme fire behaviour conditions again tomorrow for firefighters.

  • Heavy equipment continues to work along the northeast side of the fire and make good progress on this section of the fire perimeter.
  • Firefighters have completed a successful controlled burn technique to create a containment boundary along highway 35 south of High Level, highway 58 west of High Level and the fire perimeter, as weather conditions allowed firefighters to do so.
  • Alberta Wildfire firefighters in conjunction with municipal firefighters, along with air support from helicopters and air tankers continue to work hard to contain the fire. The main area of spread remains away from town. There have been no homes or businesses damaged to date but the threat remains.
  • The High Level Fire Department and other municipal firefighters have set up sprinklers on the southwest and northwest side of town. In addition, structural protection has been completed on Mackenzie County homes southeast of High Level, Tolko and Norbord.
  • Structural firefighters have also been taking preventive measures on homes. This includes removing debris from yards, removing patio furniture from decks and other flammable material.
  • There are 194 structural firefighters that continue to establish and maintain structural protection on homes in the Town of High Level and on other critical values at risk within Mackenzie County. Alberta Wildfire has 400,firefighters along with 28 helicopters on this fire. There are more resources arriving daily.
  • Atco has restored power supply and is supporting normal operations to Mackenzie County, Town of High Level, La Crete, Fort Vermilion & Dene Tha’ First Nation. Atco has secured large-scale backup generators that can be drawn on to provide power to communities, if needed.

Video of rotating convection column

rotating convection column
Screenshot from @StormCatMedia video below.

Most large convection columns of smoke rising over large or intense wildfires rotate to some degree. In the video below filmed near Melbourne, Australia, the speed of the playback has been increased, making it easier to notice the rotation. To confirm this, check out the car driving by at what appears to be over 250 miles per hour.

Thanks Mike. Very interesting!

As a bonus, here is another recent convection column in Australia — a very large one with condensation on top, referred to as a pyrocumulus cloud.