Satellite images generated by UC Berkeley geography professor Jeffrey Chambers show the Camp Fire as it burned through Paradise, California, leaving a massive plume of smoke in its wake — smoke that has since traveled to UC Berkeley and beyond.
The images show the area surrounding Paradise at 10:45 a.m. on Nov. 8, the morning the fire started. Only four hours old, the fire had already burned large swaths of Butte County. Chambers generated the images using Google’s Earth Engine, which combines satellite imagery and maps to allow users to analyze trends and changes on the Earth’s surface.
Through satellite data analysis, Chambers said he estimates the fire was moving at about 3 miles per hour in its first four hours. The generated images are examples of technology’s potential ability to forecast extreme weather events, according to Chambers.
The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history, scorching more than 100,000 acres of Northern California land, and leaving 76 dead and more than 1,000 people missing as of press time. Because of unhealthy air quality from the fire, classes were canceled on campus Friday and Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving break.
“People are just astonished,” Chambers said. “I was astonished. … What that community went through is just terrible.”
Chambers, who joined UC Berkeley’s geography department in 2013, studies extreme events’ impact on forests and vegetation.
Although the images may not be the “most useful” to firefighting crews, Chambers said the images can be used to understand the fire’s damage as well as how it played out spatially, particularly in relation to the area’s high speed winds, according to Chambers. Chambers added that it is important people understand how rapidly fire can move.
“People understand images really well,” Chambers said. “Conveying that info in the form of an image can really put things into context for people, and they can see how devastating that fire was.”
Chambers said he is working on a public interface that will allow people to interact with generated satellite images that will be completed in the coming weeks. Last year, he created an interface that mapped the forest devastation after Hurricane Maria. He said the interface he is working on now will allow users to zoom in on debris and move around the “complex mosaic” shown in the images of the Camp Fire.
UC Berkeley graduate student Jared Stapp, a former student of Chambers’ who now works closely with him, said in an email that this interface would provide another view of extreme weather events, such as the Camp Fire, that are becoming more common.
“Over the past year, the state has experienced some of the largest and most devastating wildfires in its history,” Stapp said in an email. “Having the ability to map them out as they change could aid prevention and response efforts, as well as better communicate the situation to the public.”