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Just a day after it ignited on July 29, California’s McKinney Fire exploded in intensity, burning so hot it exceeded the ability of a satellite sensor to measure it as it sent numerous fire clouds high into the atmosphere.

Now, torrential rains in the area have sent streams of water, mud and debris down streams, toppled a bridge and injured a man helping to fight the blaze – which has grown to a third the size of New York City.

On the night of August 2, 2022, a raging flow of water, mud and debris took out a bridge near the McKinney Fire in California, injuring a man traveling in that truck. He was helping to fight the fire. (Credit: Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office.)

The rains helped slow the fire’s spread. But hot temperatures, very dry conditions and gusty winds are likely to reignite the fire. The forecast for the rest of the week is for temperatures around 90 degrees and even reaching 100 degrees over the weekend.

Clouds of fire erupt

Late in the day on Saturday, July 30, the McKinney Fire exploded in intensity and sent up five or six pulses of fire clouds known as pyrocumulonimbusor pyroCbs.

It was an unusually high number of these pyrocylinders, “probably caused by the abundance of very dry fuels combined with gusty, terrain-enhanced winds,” said Scott Bachmeier, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Research. “This is probably an indicator of how bad the drought is in this region – and the weather conditions were right for the fire to spread quickly in the dry fuels.”

A switch between images from the VIIRS instrument aboard the NOAA-20 satellite reveals the bright nightglow and hot infrared signature of active fires around the perimeter of the McKinney Fire during the nighttime hours of July 31, 2022. (Credit: Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Research Satellite)

Bachmeier also reports that the wildfire was very hot — so much so that it exceeded the ability of a sensor aboard the GOES-17 satellite to measure it. “A lot of big fires get that hot — especially the ones I’ve seen that have been producing pyrocabins lately,” he says.

A false-color satellite image reveals the smoke and heat signature of the McKinney Fire on Saturday, July 30, 2022. (Credit: Modified Sentinel 2 data processed by Tom Yulsman using the Sentinel Hub EO browser)

The false-color image above shows the view from space as recorded by the Sentinel 2 satellite on July 30. To create it, I combined visual images with infrared data to show both the heat of the flames and the smoke they sent up into the atmosphere.

Looking ahead, temperatures in Northern California are likely to remain above average for the next eight to 14 days, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. There is an equal chance of above and below average rainfall.

If the precipitation is accompanied by a lot of lightning, it can be a mixed blessing because it can start new fires. Furthermore, all of California is in a drought, with 60 percent of the state — including all of Siskiyou County, a view of the McKinney Fire — in extreme drought, the second most intense category. This does not bode well for the coming weeks.

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