Initial Publication Date: October 7, 2011

Wildfire Visualizations

Compiled by Rob Thomas of SERC.

Wildfires are a particularly paradoxical geohazard-they are crucial to fire-dependent ecosystems, but when poorly managed these fires can destroy the very ecosystems that rely on fire for rebirth. These simulations, images, and interactive animations seek to explain wildfires and their complex relationship with atmosphere, terrain, and human management.

Browse the complete set of Visualization Collections. If you have comments or additional resources to add to the page, use our Feedback box to let us know.

Jump to: simulations | imaging | maps | fighting wildfires


Multisensor Fire Observations, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio (more info) This NASA video, available in MPEG-1 and -2 formats, serves as an introduction to the use of satellite imagery to monitor wildfires and their impact on the environment. The film explains how atmospheric data, land cover data, and meteorological data are used in combination to explain the genesis of fires, to monitor their movements, and to better understand wildfires as a phenomenon.. A HD version is also available.

3D Fire Spread Animations, San Diego State University (more info) These excellent animations overlay animations of fire spread on 3D terrain that incorporates satellite imagery. A timeline shows the animation's current time relative to the fire occurrence, and an inset map provides an overhead view of the fire on a map that shows fuels by location. Animations are available for several wildfires that occurred in California.

Wildfire Visualizations, National Center for Atmospheric Research ( This site may be offline. ) This site offers a series of 3D wildfire simulations, illustrating how fires move on different types of terrain and how the flames move in response to atmospheric conditions. Also included is a computer simulation of an actual wildfire, illustrating how wind, terrain, and fuel influence the growth an motion of a fire. All movies are available in QuickTime, Real, and MPEG format.

Visualization Projects: Wildfire, Los Alamos National Laboratory (more info) This visualization, available as an MPEG movie, shows the development of a wildfire in rugged terrain with a pronounced wind, demonstrating how these factors influence the development and motion of the fire. The smoke from the fire indicates the motion of the wind, and it's possible how the combination of wind and terrain causes the fire to climb out of a valley in only one direction.

Fire Occurrence, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio (more info) This keyword page features all of NASA's visualizations involving fire occurrence, including animations and satellite imagery from a wide array of specific fire occurrences around the world. Although the list of visualizations is quite lengthy, it might be worth searching in order to find a visualization of an event of particular interest to your locale or course.


Fire Events, NOAA Operational Significant Event Imagery (more info) This webpage includes satellite imagery of significant wildfires and controlled burn efforts in both color and greyscale. Images of wildfires around the world are featured on the site, and new images are featured as they are added. The images are presented as false-color and black and white JPEGs.

Earth Observatory, NASA (more info) This website from NASA provides satellite images of various Earth measurements (e.g. aeresols, rainfall, snowfall, sea surface temperatures, and UV exposure). Images are categorized by type and year.


Earth Observatory, NASA ( This site may be offline. ) This site includes a number of maps displaying active fires in the United States and Canada. Aside from a straightforward and informative fire map on the main page, there are also regional maps, web-GIS maps, downloadable GIS data, up-to-date satellite imagery, and maps of ground cover, forecasted fire danger, and much more.

Earth Observatory, NASA (more info) This MPEG-1 film overlays the spread of Yellowstone's famous 1988 fires on satellite imagery of the park. Independent fires are color-coded, making it possible to see how this originally separate fires converged to consume a good part of the park. The map is based on daily observations by fire lookouts and nightly infrared imaging flights over the park.

Earth Observatory, NASA (more info) This flash-based animation shows the spread of the Old and Grand Prix Fires in California, and how the spread of the fire forced authorities to evacuate communities near the flames. It's possible to see which communities were evacuated over the course of the fire, and, further, to gauge how the fire's motion and anticipated movements influenced decisions to evacuate towns. A similar animation is available for California's Cedar and Paradise Fires of the same year.

Earth Observatory, NASA (more info) This interactive Java-based map, maintained by a division of the USGS, shows current wildfires and includes options to examine historical wildfires dating back to 2000. The map displays the wildfires' names and perimeters in relation to political boundaries, roads, and topography.

Fighting Wildfires

Wildfire Simulator, NOVA Online ( This site may be offline. ) This online wildfire simulation tool allows users to simulate a wildfire, choosing the wind direction, speed, and the fire's start location. Once you've started your wildfire, you can then fight it, using firelines and backfires in order to try and stop its spread, or, failing that, control it. This interactive simulation requires Shockwave Player to run.

Anatomy of a Prescribed Burn (more info) This poster shows how prescribed burns operate, using careful planning and preparation to start a fire that will renew habitat without threatening ecosystems or homes. This image describes the steps required to prepare a prescribed burn, how fire crews set up for the burn, and how the wind is used to help control the fire.

Fighting Forest Fires, CBC Archives (more info) The Canadian Broadcasting Company opened their vaults, with historical and current stories about wildfires and wildfire defense from both television and radio. Featured is a TV broadcast about 1958 forest closures during a dry Canadian summer, a radio piece about using wind tunnels to examine fire behavior, and a video piece about satellite uplinks that are beginning to replace old radio technology at fire lookout stations in Alberta.

Outfitting Wildland Firefighters, NOVA Online (more info) This interactive flash-based poster shows the equipment that firefighters use in their work, along with how they use it. Simply click on a piece of equipment, and a sidebar explains its use and history in firefighting.

The Science of Fire, (more info) This Flash-based slide-show, targeted towards younger students, demonstrates how fire-dependent ecosystems need periodic fires in order to thrive. It also shows how going too long between periodic fires can cause fuel to build up, threatening a fire so large that it destroys the ecosystem, instead of helping it. These visualizations demonstrate the need for careful fire management.