Boulder fire from space

By Phil Plait | September 7, 2010 11:46 am

I’ve posted quite a few pictures from NASA’s Earth-observing Terra satellite over the past few months, some of them showing devastating natural disasters. But I never thought I’d post one that shows something so close to home.

This image was taken yesterday, September 6th, at about noon Mountain time:


That shows the plume of smoke from the Fourmile Canyon fire that I wrote about yesterday. The image is roughly 300 km (190 miles) across. The vertical dividing line is the actual edge of the Rocky Mountains; to the left (west) are the mountains, and to the right (east) is the start of the Great Plains stretching most of the way across the US.

The green smudge just to the south of the plume is Denver, and the smoke goes directly over Boulder… and my house. The fire is still going as I write this, but the winds have shifted and there is no longer a plume overhead. It smells like ash outside though, and the foothills — usually visible a few kilometers to the west from my house — are almost totally hidden.

I appreciate all the notes and tweets I’ve gotten, but we’re safe here. The fire is pretty far west of us, though we could see it poking over the first set of foothills last night. Creepy.

My brother-in-law has taken some amazing pictures of the fire from his house, located even farther to the east than where I am. This one shows the tops of the fires.

I’ll add that the sunset yesterday was desperately beautiful:

Smoke and Sun

The smoke is made up of tiny particles of soot and ash. When blue light hits them, it scatters like a pinball off a bumper. So when you look to the Sun through the smoke, all the blue light has bounced off in a different direction, leaving only the redder light able to make its way straight to your eye. This happens on a lesser scale every night with particles in the air, making sunsets red. But this fire has really strengthened the effect, and the Sun went through myriad shades of red on its way down past the mountains last night. It was astonishing. Making it even more wrenching was knowing what was a causing it, and that there were people in the middle of all that smoke trying to put the fires out.

So far, there are still no reported injuries, though many homes have been destroyed and over 1000 people have been evacuated from the area.

My thanks to NASA_GoddardPix for the link to the Terra picture.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Boulder, fire, Terra

Comments (36)

  1. Keep a wary eye. Having fought forrest fires many years ago, I can attest that they are as quixotic as can be imagined. As soon as you think you are safe, the fire does not agree. Sometimes, they seem to have a mind of their own.

  2. Erasmussimo

    After you’ve lived in forest fire country, you learn to estimate the distance to a fire just by looking at and smelling the smoke. Seriously! Distant fires smell different from close fires. And obviously the plume homogenizes as it moves further away from the source.

  3. Inger Briggs

    I lived in Bailey during three forest fire years. I now live in Washington, but there still is a moment of “stop, look around, where is the fire” when I smell a fireplace fire.

  4. Pete Jackson

    Wow, if you really blow this shot up, you can see Phil hosing off his roof!

    Hope the winds shift for you.

  5. Dave Scruggs

    Do yourself a favor and get ready before the fire switches directions and heads straight at you.
    1. Trim any high brush within 100 feet of your house down to the ground.
    2. Make sure that there is no high grass under any decks you may have.
    3. Clean off your roof and CLEAN OUT YOUR gutters. Embers will roll down the roof and into the gutters where debris will ignite. You may also want to stop up your down spouts and flood the gutters.
    4. Anything that will burn that is around your house (wood pile, charcoal, propane bottles, yard furniture, toys) should be moved away from the house or inside.
    5. If you have trees overhanging the house, you have problems. Eliminate any ladder fuels under these trees.

    That is the 30 second version of what need to be done. You need to make your house look like a “winner” so any engine companies that would be assigned to save it will see that it can be saved.

    D. Scruggs
    Captain, Boulder Creek (Ca) Fire
    Sr. Engineer, Lockheed Martin, Sunnyvale Ca

  6. Wayne Conrad

    I read in another of your posts that we can see through interstellar dust clouds better in infrared than in visible light. How similar is that to the sun being tinted red when seen through haze here on Earth? Is it the same physics in both cases?

  7. Barbara

    Thanks for the update and the good explanation of smoke-enhanced sunsets. I’ve seen many of those, but in Georgia we set our woods on fire on purpose so it’s not so stressful. The sunset in Austin last night was amazing too, I assumed because of moisture from the tropical storm coming. Now that I’ve started thinking about it I’ve confused myself. How do clouds and water vapor change the light spectrum?

  8. Ken

    Actually I find the picture somewhat reassuring. Compare that plume to the Russian wildfire photos, for example, where the smoke covers, well, Russia.

    I misread “Boulder fire from space” at first, and thought this post was about meteors. That would be a great chapter title for “Death From the Skies II”.

  9. ccpetersen

    The fire’s still going; we can see quite a huge cloud from our vantage point about 8 miles south of the fire. Occasionally a new plume of smoke goes up, probably indicating another stand of trees or a building on fire. We’ve been watching out for the slurry aircraft.

  10. Bruce

    How about a blog entry on the enviro-nutjob that held hostages at the Discovery Channel headquarters last week? You know, the psycho that was inspired by Al Gore? Yet another victim of global warming hysteria.

  11. Tom

    Reminds me of when a fire broke out on Kitt Peak July last year (2009) on our final night of observing using the Bok 90-inch, especially the nighttime glow over the ridges.

    Spent the entire night wondering not whether we’d open, but whether we’d be evacuated off the mountain which we finally were in the early dawn hour once it threatened to cross the only access road (the summit was never in danger).

    A wonderful experience with some beautiful photos as a result but definitely a bit on the scary side.

  12. tiger

    omg congratulations wat do u want a cake?????? (for posting the pics)

  13. mike

    is there a live overhead feed available?

  14. ccpetersen

    Bruce@7: I assume that it be okay if Phil did another blog entry on how not to be a dick and used your post as an example?

    Go away.

    Tom: we stood on our deck last night as it got dark and watched as the flames leapt up from the ridges. It was astonishing to see them as clearly as we did from 8 miles away. I spent most of yesterday taking pictures from various parts of our own mountain, and each time a new plume went up, we groaned, knowing that another house had gone up. It is part of life here in the west, where things are dry (and getting drier as the climate warms).

  15. Erasmussimo

    Wayne Conrad @6 asks if the sunlight reddening is the same physical process that is going on in interstellar gas clouds. Not quite. In the case of the fire, the reddening is purely due to the particle size regardless of their chemical makeup. In the case of many dust clouds, that phenomenon is definitely at work, so yes, there is identity in processes as far as that goes — but the dust and gas also absorbs some wavelengths due to chemical interactions which show up in the spectrum as distinctive absorption lines. (Gad, I’m explaining this badly!) Anyway, yes, we use infrared telescopes to see through interstellar gas clouds for the same reason that the sun is reddened by smoke.

    Barbara @7 asks “How do clouds and water vapor change the light spectrum?” The answer is a little complicated. The water vapor itself has no effect in the visible wavelengths. However, at infrared wavelengths water vapor has several strong absorption lines. But lots of water vapor does produce a haze from the tiny droplets suspended in the air. These guys act like bits of dust, absorbing the blue light preferentially, letting the red light through.

    The distinction I’m drawing in both cases is between absorption as a process confined to specific wavelengths, due to the energy levels of the orbital electrons in the molecule, and absorption as a physical scattering due to the physical size of an object. You don’t need big particles to do this — even small molecules can do this. When they do, it’s called Rayleigh scattering, which is stronger for bluer light than for redder light. Thus, red light penetrates straight through the atmosphere, whereas some of the blue light goes ricocheting all over the sky. It’s bouncing around so randomly that, when you look in any direction at the atmosphere during the day, you see lots of those ricocheting blue photons and you say, “The sky is blue!” At sunset, the light has to travel horizontally through the atmosphere, encountering much more air, which intercepts so much of the blue light than only the redder light is left, so you say “The sunset is red!” Thus, the sky is blue for precisely the same reason that the sunset is red.

    When I learned this as an undergraduate, it was one of my great “Aha!” moments.

  16. KAE

    Your title: “Boulder Fire from Space” sounds like a description of a meteor… at least that’s what I thought it was going to be about. 😛

  17. Blondironomy

    In California, we call that “August”. :)

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good photo – but it needs an arrow saying something like “the BA is here!” 😉

    Glad to hear your out of harms way. Hope the Boulder fire* is contained and extinguished speedily and without too much damage done.

    As I noted earlier, we are all-too familiar with bushfires (what you call wildfires) over here in Oz.

    If you haven’t already take (#5.) Dave Scruggs advice which sounds very much like what we’re told to do here. Be prepared in case the fire changes direction or another fire starts and decide early what you plan to do whether fighting to save your property or evacuating. I’ll also add we are told here (in an area where bushfires are a serious threat) that if a bushfire approaches you should fill as many containers – buckets, sinks, baths, etc.. – with water so you have some supply in case the water pressure drops. I’m sure you’re smart enough to know this anyhow but just in case.


    * Boulder fire hmm .. if a coalfire is burning coal, a grass fire is burning grassland, a forest fire is burning forests then a Boulder fire would be .. burning rocks!? 😉

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    BTW. The 2 lower Flickr photos are not showing – “currently unavailable” – at least on my machine. Just so you know. :-(

    Also while I disagree with the rude & nasty tone of (#10.) Bruce’s post, I would like to read your view on that incident and like to see you blog about that. I heard about that on the TV news here and immediately thought of you.

    Hmm .. That doesn’t quite sound right come to think of it does it? NOT as the perpetrator I’ll specify! Actually I’m getting a pavlovian response now whenever I hear Discover or Discovery channel I think “Ah, the BA!” straight away. 😉

  20. mfumbesi

    [humour]This for me has confirmed that you are a NASA shill. I mean they obviously read your blog yesterday and decided to take pictures and see if they can protect you.[/humour]

  21. Janet

    If you click on the empty picture (where it says “currently unavailable”) it will take you to FLICKR and the picture will appear. Great shot. Thanks for the word on Boulder, having been at CU for 3 years I think fondly of the flatirons … at this point, I too live in fire country, just further west. Great advice form #5 – I live by them. All of this is a good reminder that mother nature owns the land and we are merely tenants…. unfortunately we haven’t been very good ones.

  22. Treefrog

    We noticed the black plumes today too. Phil, maybe you could do a blog explaining what we’re seeing with the different smoke colors? We thought the lighter color changing at the front might have been from a recent retardant air drop. We saw mostly billowy gray, with white smoke as well, but then further back from the front of all the smoke a very thin straight vertical line of black, and then another. I could only think that the separate darker smoke was from “structures” (houses as we call em). Yipes! I sure hoped someone was able to grab the pets and family photos.

  23. Kieron Wilkinson

    Is that a large impact crater just blow the smoke stretching down near the bottom of the picture? Sure looks like it to me… Though I can’t see it at all on Google maps. Pareidolia perhaps?

  24. Robert Carnegie

    Put me down also as thinking of “boulders fired from space” as potentially a greater problem (unless you heard different). Turns out you shouldn’t have said what you said about the Face on Mars. :-)

    I suppose it doesn’t take long at all living nearby for the place name to be just some letters and a sound, until a visitor expresses or creates that familiar confusion.

    “Make your house look like a winner”, it’s a competition now? But point taken, fire service is a commercial business like any other. (Or, some folks say it should be.) It isn’t going to hurt to leave a 12-pack of beers on show in the window, either. (But it may offend, I guess.)

    Re smell, I’ll guess that scent and distance to fire depends on wind direction, but then fire that’s downwind is less of a conecern, or did I get that back to front?

  25. Erasmussimo

    Kieron Wilkonson @23 asks: “Is that a large impact crater just blow the smoke stretching down near the bottom of the picture? Sure looks like it to me… Though I can’t see it at all on Google maps.”

    Simple explanation: it doesn’t show up on Google maps because they’re several years old. The NASA photograph is a few days old. Therefore, the meteor hit sometime since the Google photos were taken, and nobody noticed because it used stealth technology. 😉

    Treefrog @22 asks about “what we’re seeing with the different smoke colors?” The primary difference is that houses contain lots of industrial chemicals based on petroleum products. Most of the smoke from softwoods consists of particulates, lots of CO2, and a variable amount of heavy hydrocarbons — depending on the temperature of the fire. So, in general, smoke from softwood fires is lighter in color. But houses emit lots of heavy hydrocarbons, plus all sorts of other bad things, and their smoke is usually darker. I think that there’s also a difference in particulate size for house versus forest fires, but I can’t recall the details. Of course, there are also factors like scrub, which burns differently because many of the scrub species have high oil content — some of them, such as manzanita, burn very, very hot.

  26. ccpetersen

    Erasmussimo is correct about the smoke colors. As we watched parts of the fire in our line of sight, we could tell when a house or building was going up — the smoke was darker and more billowy, meaning that there was a condensed fuel source for the fire. We watched through binoculars as both trees and houses went up, and the tree fire smoke was significantly lighter in color than the house/building fire smoke. And apparently, a few vehicles were going up in flames, too, giving petrochemicals into the mix.

  27. QuietDesperation

    Pfft. Amateurs.

    Southern California, 2003:

    And 2008:

    I recall both events very clearly. If the wind was right (or, rather, wrong) it was like a small volcano had gone off nearby. Ash everywhere and advisories to just stay indoors, and I live 50 to 100 miles from the fires.

  28. QuietDesperation

    And the 2009 Station fire produced this gorgeous pyrocumulus cloud.

  29. Kieron Wilkinson

    Erasmussimo: “Simple explanation: it doesn’t show up on Google maps because they’re several years old. The NASA photograph is a few days old. Therefore, the meteor hit sometime since the Google photos were taken, and nobody noticed because it used stealth technology.”

    Simpler explanation: Google maps look a bit rubbish for terrain :)

    I prefer the meteor impact idea!

  30. Theramansi

    To 6. Wayne Conrad:
    It is one and the same. Higher frequencies get scattered while lower ones tend to penetrate. The short wavelengths of blue light get deflected off dust, smoke, even the molecules of air itself, while the lower red and infrared penetrate better.

    This is true not only of electromagnetic waves, but as far as I know all wave energy. One hears the thumping of a car stereo or the rumble of thunder from a distance. Higher pitched sounds are more directional and bounce easier… That’s why bats use ultrasound. :p

  31. freshsliceddna

    2 of my frat brothers from OSU died in the King Mtn fire outside Glenwood Springs, CO…worst fire-fighting tragedy ever. The entire hot-shot crew was trapped and every last one of them killed when the winds unexpectedly changed direction. I was an emergency forest fire-fighter from Medford, OR at the the time but not a hot-shot…nothing is quite like a wildfire in Colorado’s steep, rugged, windy terrain. I spreads so fast and the wind changes direction constantly. This fire was actually spreading in many different directions at times which makes fighting it very risky. I actually considered buying a home in the burn area earlier this year but I felt it was risky with all the beetle kill. This could actually be a minor fire compared to what could happen in Rocky Mtn Park and surrounding forests.

  32. Firemancarl

    Just for kicks, video of the Gold Hill area just west of Boulder.

  33. Charles

    The important question is:

    Why don’t people ever learn not to build flammable houses in fire ecologies?

    It’s perfectly possible to build houses which can easily survive periodic wildfires–but people insist upon building wood-frame houases and permitting the brush to grow up around them.

    How come the local building codes don’t prohibit such construction?

    How come the insurance companies don’t refuse to insure them?

    Colorado canyon fires are a fact that you must live with if you live in the area–they’re not going away.

    Either build the appropriate buildings, or get the (*&(& out of the way when the fires come.

    Evolution at t work.

    Please, don’t tell these people to evacuate, just let the idiots burn

  34. Stephen Villano

    Charles, REAL nice! How about YOU go set the wayback machine or get Sherman to set it for you. THEN you can get the fire code fixed generations ago. No? Wanna get the Doctor to do it for you?
    OK, REALITY solution, get those poor saps out (or SOON to be poor) and let the professionals do their job. THEN have new structures replacing the old be made “fire proof”.
    BUT, let’s follow YOUR logic along your bizarre trail. Let’s discard those wasteful ambulance/rescue services. MOST accidents are preventable, let them bleed to death or burn to death with their kids in the car.
    Nope, we’ll do the best for the majority of society.
    And let evolution eliminate your mentality.

  35. Charles


    Go look up ‘sarcasm,’ you obviously don’t recognize it when you see it.

  36. Chris Winter

    It’s old news now, but I found this report on the Boulder area fire worth reading.


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