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Posted on June 4th, 2019

Our Changing Landscape – The Mendocino Complex Fire, California

In this monthly feature, we span the globe to examine Our Changing Landscape with a time series of medium resolution RapidEye satellite imagery. The RapidEye archive dates back to late 2008 and already contains more than 14 billion square kilometers of data. During May we checked out a beautiful super bloom in southern California, but for this edition of Our Changing Landscape we change the pace a bit, staying in California but this time with a look at the destruction left behind by the state’s largest fire to date, the Mendocino Complex Fire.

The RapidEye Constellation

RapidEye is a constellation of five 5-meter (m) medium resolution satellites each offering five spectral bands of information. The RapidEye constellation offers daily revisits to every location on the planet with a huge footprint that is 77-km wide. The data is priced competitively with a starting cost of $1.28 per square kilometer for all five spectral bands – academics do receive discounts. RapidEye adds a fifth band, the red edge, to the ‘traditional’ multispectral set of blue, green, red and near-infrared (NIR). The additional spectral data in the red edge band allows users to extract more useful land ‘information’ than can be from traditional 4-band imagery sources. When RapidEye imagery is ordered as a Level 3A Orthorectified product, images from multiple dates are extremely well registered, making it the ideal data source for Our Changing Landscape.

Click on the image above to see an animation of 5-meter natural color RapidEye imagery collected over the South Cow Mountain area in California, USA on July 23, July 28, July 29 and October 21, 2018. The first image in the series shows the area before it burned – and yes it is remote with stretches of non-forested lands. In the next two images from the 28th and 29th you will see active plumes of smoke billowing up into the air, created by the Mendocino Complex Fire. And in the final October 2018 image, you can see the extent of the destruction left behind with multiple barren hilltops and valleys. (Images Courtesy: © Planet 2019)

The Mendocino Complex Fire, California, USA

While forest fires can be destructive they are an important natural force that shapes many ecosystems, for example California. Historically speaking, fires helped clean out the biomass that accumulated between their outbreak which actually regenerated many forest species as old, less productive trees were cleared and a younger more vibrate stand replaced it. In recent years, the intersection of an ever-increasing presence of humans in ‘natural’ ecosystems; climate change (which has reduced regional rainfall and increased the intensity and length of summers); and changing forest management practices where fire suppression was chosen over fire control (which resulted in a significant accumulation of dead biomass), have resulted in an increasing number of destructive and deadly fires in California. The list here of California’s 20 most destructive fires (as measured by structures destroyed) shows that 15 of the 20 fires have occurred since 2000, and 10 of the 20 in the past five years alone.

If you look at the largest forest fires in California’s recorded history (as measured by acreage burned), the July 2018 Mendocino Complex tops that list (over 60% larger than the second largest fire) burning some 459,123 acres (717 square miles or 1,858 square kilometers). The Mendocino Complex is actually the combination of two smaller fires, the Ranch and River Fires, which started on July 27, 2018 in Mendocino County, California. The massive fire was not 100% contained until nearly two months later on September 19th, but before its containment it destroyed 280 structures and took the life of a fire fighter – numbers which would have been far higher if the area was not as remote as it was. As you can see in these US Forest Service maps, the area destroyed by the Mendocino Fire Complex was massive; and so now it is time to turn our attention to the 5-meter RapidEye archive to see how part of the region changed before and after the fire as well as a few images collected while the fire was still raging.

If you would like to find out more about using RapidEye for your academic studies, engineering projects or any landscape analysis, let us know at or (303) 993-3863.

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