Horrifying images are emerging from the Napa Valley in California right now, as a two-day-old wildfire is rampaging through the region. 15 people are already reported dead, and property damage will be in the region of hundreds of millions.

It’s easy to grasp the kind of destruction a fire can wreak, but it’s harder to understand the scale of the disaster. In fact, the best way is to take a long view from space, which is exactly what NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites are for.

The image above shows a view of California without any clouds, captured yesterday late morning. It’s the last time the satellites passed overhead without cloud cover, and it gives a good idea of just how big the fires are. The front edge of the fire is relatively small, but the dense cloud of smoke — which is impacting air quality in surrounding cities — is huge, relative to the size of the state.

“The simple formula is fuel-plus-meteorology-plus-ignition equals fire. The catalyst is people,” said William Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The fires erupted in areas where wildlands meet urban and suburban development. Californians have built in what are historical fire corridors, and these high-density developments are particularly vulnerable to fast-moving, destructive fires.”

The next pass by one of NASA’s earth-observing satellites is expected this evening, and weather conditions should be good to give us another update on the state of the fire.

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