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Fort McMurray fires
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)

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.

Suomi NPP image of wildfires
This daytime view of the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta was captured by the VIIRS instrument aboard the Suomi NPP satellite on May 5 at 3:45 p.m. ET. Hotspots indicating fires are outlined in red. Smoke appears light brown. (Credit: Jeff Schmaltz / NASA / NOAA / DOD)
Suomi NPP nighttime view of wildfires
This nighttime infrared view of the Fort McMurray wildfires was captured by the VIIRS instrument aboard the Suomi NPP satellite on May 6 at 5:37 a.m. ET. The brightest parts of the fire appear white, while smoke appears light gray. (Credit: William Straka III / UWM / SSEC / CIMSS)

About 25,000 evacuees headed north from Fort McMurray to find refuge in the oil field camps there, but became stranded. They’re now being airlifted and transported by convoys to safer ground south of the fires, in Edmonton and Calgary.

So far, authorities have not reported any deaths or injuries related to the fires. But the fire has grown to an area of 330 square miles, which is about the size of Calgary. More than 1,000 firefighters are trying to get the fires under control, but they’ll need help from the weather.

“Let me be clear: Air tankers are not going to stop this fire,” Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention, said in an Associated Press report. “It is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain.”

There’s a 40 percent chance of showers over the weekend, Environment Canada said in its forecast – which, by the way, is based on satellite data.

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