This month’s wildfires in northern California were the worst in the state’s history, causing at least $1 billion in damage and 42 deaths. At least 8,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed, and at one point, classes were canceled for 260,000 students in nearly 600 schools.
Yet details about the exact extent of the damage have been spotty, particularly during the height of the conflagration, when obtaining clear satellite imagery was difficult due to thick plums of smoke emanating from the flames.
But a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based tech company says it has a solution. Using tools from the emerging field of geospatial analytics, Descartes Labs analyzes vast amounts of satellite data in order to gain fresh insights about large-scale events, like crop failure or natural disasters.
The company says it gathers some 10 terabytes of near real-time data from observational satellites per day, or about 5,000 hours of standard video — a volume that requires massive computing power to absorb and analyze.
With the northern California fires, it found, despite the vast amounts of confirmed loss of property and real estate, that only 4.2 percent of the severely damaged area in Sonoma and Napa counties was actually developed — and that over half of the severe burning took place in Northern California’s vast, low-lying shrub land. The numbers reflect conditions as of Oct. 12.
“It was astounding that this was only 4.2 percent of the burn area,” Caitlin Kontgis, a member of Descartes Labs’ applied science team, told Seeker.