Images: Satellites Capture Different Views of Devastating Fires in Chile

NASA Earth Observatory

Wildfires continued to ravage Chile’s countryside in early February 2017, weeks after they flared up in mid-January. The blazes have thwarted firefighters’ efforts to control them, with new hot spots emerging daily. Satellite data and scientific analysis suggest the fires are among the worst the country has seen in decades.

Since the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite began collecting data in 2002, fires have occurred in a fairly steady, cyclical pattern in Chile, rising during the dry season and falling during wetter months. Between 2003 and 2016, MODIS detected an average of 330 daytime fire hot spots throughout Chile during the month of January. In 2017, the number jumped tenfold.

“This is unprecedented from my perspective. The smoke plumes are huge in abundance and altitude,” said Michael Fromm, a meteorologist with the Naval Research Laboratory who has been studying satellite fire data for 15 years. “Fires have gotten much larger and much more energetic than typical for that area.”

The fires left a massive burn scar near Empedrado, Chile. On January 24, 2017, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite acquired a false-color image (above) of scorched land flanked by actively burning fires. The image combines shortwave infrared, near-infrared, and green light (OLI bands 7-5-3) to distinguish burned area (brown) from unscarred land (green).