The so-called Rim Fire in California that had ravaged 282 square miles by Tuesday is so intense that it can be seen at night from space.

NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite with extraordinary light-sensing capabilities recently captured the wildfire ravaging Yosemite National Park after dark.

An image taken on August 23, when the fire was especially active, shows the flames encroaching on the territory of the national park in California.

By Monday, the wildfire moved deeper into the territory of Yosemite, according to a four-day sequence of satellite images released by NASA.

While it is common to see satellite photos showing heat generated by wildfires, this is the first time that images captured from space show light created by a conflagration at night, the site Wildfire Todayreported.

Suomi NPP, launched in 2011, features new imaging equipment called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) with a ‘day-night band’ that is extremely sensitive to low light, making it possible to see the fire front from space with unprecedented resolution and clarity.

The brightest, most intense parts of the fire glow white, exceeding the brightness of the lights of Reno, Nevada to the north. Pale gray smoke cold be seen streaming north away from the fire.

On its 11th day, the fire had surpassed 179,400 acres, becoming the seventh-largest California wildfire in records dating to 1932.

Containment increased to 20 per cent but the number of destroyed structures rose to 101 and some 4,500 structures remained threatened.

The blaze was just 40 acres when it was discovered near a road in Stanislaus National Forest on August 17, but firefighters had no chance of stopping it in the early days.

Fueled by thick forest floor vegetation in steep river canyons, it exploded to 10,000 acres 36 hours later, then to 54,000 acres and 105,620 acres within the next two days.

Federal forest ecologists say that historic policies of fire suppression to protect Sierra timber interests left a century’s worth of fuel in the fire’s path.

‘That’s called making the woodpile bigger,’ said Hugh Safford, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in California.

 
Fiery battle: Sacramento Metropolitan firefighter John Graf works on the Rim Fire line near Camp Mather, California

Fiery battle: Sacramento Metropolitan firefighter John Graf works on the Rim Fire line near Camp Mather, California

 

 
Danger zone: Television reporter Joe Fryer, foreground, walks away from the Rim Fire burning through trees near Yosemite National Park

Danger zone: Television reporter Joe Fryer, foreground, walks away from the Rim Fire burning through trees near Yosemite National Park.

Two years of drought and a constant slow warming across the Sierra Nevada also worked to turn the Rim Fire into an inferno. For years forest ecologists have warned that Western wildfires will only get worse.

‘Every year the summer temperatures are a little warmer, hence the conditions for burning are a little more auspicious,’ said Safford. ‘People can deny it all they want but it’s happening. Every year the fuels are a little bit drier.’

The Rim Fire’s exponential growth slowed only after hitting areas that had burned in the past two decades, and Safford says that shows the utility of prescribed and natural burns that clear brush and allow wildfires to move rapidly without killing trees.

Since a 1988 fire impacted nearly one third of Yellowstone National Park, forestry officials have begun rethinking suppression policies.

Yosemite has adopted an aggressive plan of prescribed burns while allowing backcountry fires caused by lightning strikes to burn unimpeded as long as they don’t threaten park facilities.

 
Menacing glow: The Rim Fire burns near Buck Meadows, California, August 24, 2013
The Rim Fire burns along Highway 120 near Yosemite
 
 A Murphys Fire District firefighter stops his vehicle as a massive wall of fire from the Rim Fire consumes trees along highway 120
 

Menacing glow: The Rim Fire burns near Buck Meadows, California, August 24, 2013

Raging inferno: A wall of fire is seen along Highway 120 near Groverland, California.

‘Yosemite is one of the biggest experimental landscapes for prescribed fire and it’s going to pay off,’ Safford said. ‘The Rim Fire is starting to hit all those old fire scars.’

The 350-mile-long Sierra Nevada is a unique mountain system in the U.S. with its Mediterranean climate, which means four-to-six months of drought every summer. California’s mountain flora is designed to burn and even flourish and regenerate healthier after a fast-moving fire.

Instead the Rim Fire is killing everything in its path. The understory ignites trees, and wind is sweeping the fire from treetop-to-treetop in 300-foot walls of flame.

Scientists also expect the impact on wildlife to be severe. The fire has encompassed nearly the entire migratory range of deer in the region, and the burning treetops likely displaced many of the remaining 300 members of a subset of Great Gray Owl along the Yosemite border, said Daniel Applebee of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

‘Because their population is so small, any loss is significant,’ Applebee said.

The fire also cut through habitat of the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like animal that is listed for state and federal protections. The fire has fragmented its range, likely leaving it nowhere to expand, Applebee said.

Warriors: Sacramento Metropolitan firefighters light a back fire on the Rim Fire line near Camp Mather, California

Warriors: Sacramento Metropolitan firefighters light a back fire on the Rim Fire line near Camp Mather, California

 

The Rim Fire is the first of any ecological significance in about a decade in the area stretching from the Sequoia National Forest south of Yosemite to north of Lake Tahoe, said Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and environmental activist who has published a number of papers on the significance and increasing rarity of post-fire habitat in the Sierra Nevada.

Eventually the forest will come back.

‘Because we are in such tremendous deficit of this post-fire habitat type, especially in this area, the Rim Fire is a good thing ecologically,’ Hanson said. ‘This is not destruction, this is ecological restoration.’

The fire approached the main reservoir serving San Francisco, but fears that the inferno could disrupt water or hydroelectric power to the city diminished. On Tuesday the fire moved into the watershed, which increases the chances of sediment runoff this winter.

 
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