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The Hewlett Fire

Posted On: May 21, 2012 - By: Curtis Seaman


According to reports, a man camping along the Hewlett Gulch trail in Roosevelt National Forest on 14 May 2012 had his camping stove knocked over in a gust of wind. One week (and $2.9 million) later, the Hewlett Fire scorched more than 7600 acres before fire crews could gain the upper hand. At one point 80 homes were evacuated but, thankfully, none of them were damaged. The smoke plume could be seen as far away as Laramie, Wyoming. Less than 20 miles away from the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, our home, it certainly caught our attention.

VIIRS aboard Suomi NPP monitored the fire day and night. About an hour after the fire was first reported, VIIRS captured the hot spot in channel I-04 (3.7 µm):

Image of the Hewlett Fire from VIIRS channel I-04, 20:05 UTC 14 May 2012

Image of the Hewlett Fire from VIIRS channel I-04, 20:05 UTC 14 May 2012

In the above image, the warmest (darkest) pixel had a brightness temperature of 350 K.  A simple RGB composite of channels I-01 (0.64 µm), I-02 (0.87 µm) and I-03 (1.61 µm), with no other manipulation, from the same time as the I-04 image above, produces a red spot right over the I-04 hot spot:

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, 20:05 UTC 14 May 2012

False color RGB composite of VIIRS channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, 20:05 UTC 14 May 2012

Perhaps more amazing (but less useful from a firefighting perspective) is that, if you look closely (and you know the geography of the area), you can make out the locations of the following highways: I-25, I-76 and I-80, plus the main Union Pacific railroad tracks that more-or-less parallel I-80 in southern Wyoming. The high resolution imagery bands on VIIRS have enough resolution to identify interstate highways!

Suomi NPP passed over the area that night (15 May 2012) and the Day/Night Band (DNB) captured the fire burning brightly:

Day/Night Band image of the Hewlett Fire, 08:25 UTC 15 May 2012

Day/Night Band image of the Hewlett Fire, 08:25 UTC 15 May 2012. Image courtesy Dan Lindsey.

By the time of the 17 May 2012 nighttime overpass – two days later – the fire had grown significantly. With no clouds around, the DNB easily saw the Hewlett Fire, as it was the brightest thing in the area. The image below has been enhanced to make the nearby city lights easier to see relative to the fire.

Day/Night Band image of the Hewlett Fire, 09:26 UTC 17 May 2012

Day/Night Band image of the Hewlett Fire, 09:26 UTC 17 May 2012

In the above image, lights from various cities have been identified. The red arrow indicates the Hewlett Fire, which was bright enough and large enough to be confused for a city. The yellow arrow indicates what might be oil and/or gas flares burning in rural Weld County, which you can also see in the 15 May 2012 DNB image. Weld County is home to a third of all the oil and gas wells in Colorado.

In this zoomed-in image, you can see that the light from the fire covered an area approximately one third the size of Fort Collins:

Zoomed Day/Night Band image of the Hewlett Fire, 09:26 UTC 17 May 2012

Zoomed Day/Night Band image of the Hewlett Fire, 09:26 UTC 17 May 2012. Image courtesy Dan Lindsey.

This image was taken before the burn area even reached its maximum size. At the same time, channel I-04 also saw this ring of fire (not to be confused with the “ring of fire” caused by the recent annular eclipse):

VIIRS channel I-04 image of the Hewlett Fire, 09:26 UTC 17 May 2012

VIIRS channel I-04 image of the Hewlett Fire, 09:26 UTC 17 May 2012

Once again, darker colors indicate higher brightness temperatures. The peak temperature in channel I-04 at this time was 356 K.

Even though it caused no damage to homes or structures, it was a little too close for comfort for many people.

As a final note, our partners up the hill in the Department of Atmospheric Science have taken an interest in the Hewlett Fire. If you are interested in the non-satellite side of the research into this fire, research groups led by Professors Rutledge, Kreidenweis and Collett have collected radar observations and in situ aerosol samples of the smoke plume. Contact them for more information.


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