The southern California fires of October 2003

Of mountains and fires

A number of overseas friends asked about the wildfires in southern California in late October 2003. The fires were in mountainous country adjacent to residential areas, but not where we live in Pasadena. Close to us are the San Gabriel Mountains, which rise abruptly behind Pasadena to 5,500 feet at Mount Wilson where the Los Angeles area television transmitters are located, and to over 8,000 feet on their northern side adjacent to the Mojave Desert. These mountains run roughly east-west for about 100 km, and are about 25 km across at their widest point. This year's fires impacted the eastern end of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 50 km from here, as well as mountain areas further east, south, and west. Almost 500,000 hectares were burned and over 2,000 homes destroyed by multiple fires ranging from the northern edge of Los Angeles to near San Diego.

One reason that I got to know large fires is that they are highly visible from space. An instrument that I managed in my work, called MISR ( ), has a scientific purpose regarding monitoring of Earth's atmospheric and surface properties, primarily for use in climate studies. But it also produces interesting imagery that we use and enjoy. The resolution on the ground is not exceptional, being 275 meters between adjacent samples (pixels), but these pictures nevertheless can look magnificent, possibly because of the good color and the good dynamic range of the image data. The Gallery section of the MISR web site contains imagery from many parts of the world. Below are a few of them, together with one that is not in the Gallery, and some of my own (Earth-based!) photographs. You can click on the thumbnail to bring up a larger resolution version of each image. All of the "larger" pictures should be small enough for downloading via an analog modem at typical speeds.

There is also one MISR image included below showing the results of the devastating bushfires in the southeast of Australia in January 2003. The particular image shows the region around Canberra, where on 18 January 2003 the fires ravaged over 500 homes, the Mount Stromlo Observatory, and a major nature reserve, not to mention grazing land and other valuable property. The total area burned extended across much of the Australian Alps in both New South Wales and Victoria, including alpine areas that are not known to have burned previously. (There is a MISR Gallery picture that shows the greater extent of these fires.)


The Paseo Colorado shopping area in central Pasadena with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 159 KB.)

Typical view in the middle of the San Gabriel Mountains, looking into Devils Canyon. These are some of the world's steepest mountains, and also some of the most seismically active. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 162 KB.)

Here is a typical northward view across the Mojave Desert from the northern part (the desert side) of the San Gabriel Mountains (about 40 km north of Pasadena.) Notice how there is less vegetation than in the previous picture. In the background you can see the white salt surface of Rogers Dry Lake, where the Space Shuttle used to land. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 179 KB.)

Here is a view from the satellite-mounted MISR, at an altitude of 705 km, showing the many fires in Southern California on Sunday, 26 October 2003. At the right is the Salton Sea, which is directly inland of San Diego. The huge fire near the top of the image is divided in two by Cajon Pass, a major road and rail thoroughfare into Los Angeles, with smoke blowing directly across the city. For a more extensive view, together with a descriptive caption, see the MISR Gallery. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 108 KB.)

This shows the many burn scars in the Los Angeles area as seen by MISR on 18 November 2003. The image has annotations identifying each fire and some local cities. For a more extensive view and a narrative description, see the MISR Gallery. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 136 KB.)

This MISR view of 26 February 2003 shows the impact of the January 2003 fires in the Canberra region of Australia. This is a false color image in which green vegetation such as forests appears red. Burned areas are brown. In the upper right is the dry bed of Lake George. Southwest of it is the thin meandering shape of Lake Burley Griffin and the Molonglo River in the middle of Canberra. Slightly below and to the west of this lake is Stromlo Forest, where the Mount Stromlo Observatory is located. West of Canberra, the burned Cotter River valley stands out. The lower middle of the image shows Lake Jindabyne. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 135 KB.)

Here is NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Pasadena at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. This is where the MISR instrument was built, and where Mary and Graham worked. (Click on the thumbnail image for a larger picture, 640x480, 115 KB.)

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