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Satellites show the hell that hit Alberta

Image: Alberta wildfires
A color-coded image from the Landsat 8 satellite’s Operational Land Imager shows fire and smoke in the vicinity of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. The red spots indicate active fires. Smoke appears white, and burned areas appear brown. The image was acquired May 5. (Credit: NASA / USGS)FireFiW

Canadian firefighters are still struggling to get a handle on wide-ranging wildfires in Alberta’s oil-sand country, and satellite images are helping them see the big picture.

Among the space assets tracking the conflagration around Fort McMurray are Landsat 8 and the Suomi NPP satellites. Those spacecraft and their images are jointly managed by NASA and other agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Department.

Landsat provides pictures in infrared as well as visible wavelengths, which makes it easy to identify hotspots and help planners on the ground identify the worst fires. Suomi NPP bristles with Earth-observing instruments, including radiometers and spectral imagers that can track fire, smoke and weather systems day and night.

The satellite readings give emergency response agencies a wide-angle view on the crisis in Alberta, which already has forced more than 80,000 people to flee Fort McMurray. The area has been a center for efforts to extract petroleum from the Athabasca oil sands, so much so that Fort McMurray picked up the nickname “Fort McMoney.” It’s a big reason why Canada ranks No. 3 in proven oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) – and why crude oil prices rose this week.

See more satellite views on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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