Watch California’s Thomas Fire metastasize into a monster likely made more ferocious by climate change

By Tom Yulsman | December 17, 2017 2:48 pm

An animation of satellite imagery offers a revealing perspective on the day-by-day growth of the Thomas Fire

Thomas Fire

False-color imagery from NASA’s Terra satellite reveals the growth of the Thomas Fire from Dec. 4 through the 16th. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

“Firefighters achieved huge successes yesterday during a BIG firefight to hold their line & SAVED hundreds of homes in Montecito.”

That was the news this morning about the horrific Thomas Fire burning in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, as described by the Public Information Officer of the Ventura County Fire Department.

Unfortunately, many of the heroic firefighters will have no rest today, as the weather situation looks grim:

“The #SantaAna wind is howling through #Ventura County in the vicinity of the #ThomasFire,” Tweeted KEYT News Channel — although the situation in Santa Barbara County seemed somewhat better.

As I’m writing this at midday on Sunday, the fire has grown to 269,000 acres, making it the third largest fire on record in California. If the blaze were a city, it would be the second largest in the state, topped only by L.A.

Countless images and videos of the blaze have been posted to social media. So I thought that today I would offer a more synoptic perspective by using satellite images to create a time-lapse of the Thomas Fire. You can see the result at the top of this post.

It consists of false-color images acquired by NASA’s Terra satellite, starting on Dec. 4, 2017, right before the blaze got started, and continuing through the 16th. In the false-color scheme, burned areas are bright red, and orange shows areas of active burning.

Here’s another satellite view of the Thomas Fire, acquired yesterday:

Thomas Fire

An animation of images from the GOES-16 weather satellite acquired on Dec. 16, 2017. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA/SLIDER)

The images in this animation were captured by the brand new GOES-16 weather satellite. The spacecraft is now on station, and by December 20th it should officially be declared the operational GOES-East satellite.

Make sure to click on the screenshot to watch the animation. It shows smoke carried on the wings of stiff Santa Ana winds blowing out to sea and then getting entrained by a cyclonic feature to the south.

Nearly 9,000 wildfires have burned more than a million acres in California this year, according to statistics from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In terms of lives lost and properties destroyed, it is the worst year ever for wildfires in the state.

Fourteen of California’s 20 largest wildfires on record have all burned since 2000, according to an analysis by Climate Signals, a science information project that tracks the impacts of climate change. And research does indeed show that the fingerprint of global warming is evident in California’s fires.

“An increase in fire risk in California is attributable to human-induced climate change,” concluded a 2015 study published in the Bulletin of American Meteorological Society.

In the western United States overall, the number of wildfires and the area burned have both increased in recent decades. According to the most recent U.S. National Climate Assessment, human-caused climate change is contributing significantly to this increased fire activity by exacerbating drought and driving up temperatures.

  • OWilson

    Wildfires are a complicated business!

    CalFire reports that up to 95% of California wildfires are directly caused by humans.

    But, ironically the frequency and extent of wild fires “plummeted” with the arrival of European Settlement in California.

    If that sounds contradictory, it actually is!

    Although recent decades have had large wildfires, natural wildfire supression in the West by human settlement has produced a “Wildfire Deficit”, compared to historical records.

    It seems Mother Nature is fighting back to eliminate this wildfire “deficit”. Who will win?

    There’s an excellent article on “Wildfire Deficit”, and western wildfires in general, in Scientific American, August 2012.

    The author is none other than our favorite climate analyst, Tom Yulsman!

    • Tom Yulsman

      It seems like what I wrote is actually coming true:

      “Climate stressors are putting increasing pressure on a ‘fire deficit’ the West has accumulated over the past 100 years, say scientists who have compared today’s burn rates with fire activity over thousands of years. As the West continues to warm, that debt will come due – possibly with interest – triggering fires that are fiercer and harder to contain, they warn.”

      Now we know that fires are indeed fiercer, bigger, harder to contain, and more numerous. And research shows that climate change, not just natural variability or fire suppression, is at work.

      • OWilson

        A couple more factors are worth mentioning, too.

        “The situation may worsen in the face of expected population growth. Metropolitan San Diego’s population is expected to reach nearly 4.5 million by 2050, over a million more than today. (Pictures: San Diego Wildfires)” – National Geographic

        “The probability of fires is increasing because people are increasing,” said Jon Keeley, who has spent years studying the history of California wildfires” – U.S. Geological Survey.

        “The increased intrusion of human development into previously rural areas with send the cost of damages by natural events, ever higher” – OWilson :)

        (I’m an “all of the above” guy, myself!)



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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