Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Search Challenge (4/27/16): What are those smoke plumes?

Every so often... 

... (well, quite frequently for me!)... you'll see things that you just don't understand.  Maybe it's a funny insect, or a interesting flower, or an odd plant growing in a place you don't expect.  

I have this curiosity inspiring moments fairly often.  Usually, I'll write myself a note to "look this up later"  I flag it in my notes with the prefix L/U (for "look-up"), and every so often when I can't figure them out, I pose them to you as a SearchResearch Challenge.  

Last February 18th, 2016, in the early afternoon I was flying just north of Mobile, Alabama, when I looked south out of my window and saw this: 

This is the best shot I could get with my camera.  I didn't have polarizing filters to help cut down on the glare.  And yes, that's my checked shirt you can see reflected in the window.

As you can see, there are 5 rather large billows of smoke rising from the ground.  This week's Challenge is to... 

1.  Can you identify WHY it looks like half of Alabama is on fire?  What's going on in this photo?  

As I said, this is really just one instance of the general search problem--how do you go from the information given to a clear explanation of what's going on.  

How would you search for something this dramatic, and this difficult-to-understand from 30,000 feet in the air?  

If you figure it out, let us know HOW you figured it out.  (If you just happened to know, that's fine--put your answer in the comment stream with a comment like "I live there" or "I just happen to know..."  Those kinds of answers are good too!)  

This week.... Search on... 

... for the fire!  


  1. So my initial thought was to search [mobile alabame smoke plumes] and limit results to just February of 2016. I got a hit for a wildfire on the Mississippi-Alabama line that was around that time but from a location south of Mobile, so that couldn't be it. The results also bring up a story about a controlled fire around the same time at Redland Arsenal but that is VERY north of Mobile, near the topmost Northern border.

    I ended up changing my search to [mobile alabama controlled burn] to see if this was maybe causing the smoke. In addition to the Redland controlled burn, there was also one near Talladega, which is north. However, you said you were JUST north and I guess that comes down to our definition of near. Mobile to Talladega is about 250 miles. By car that is like a 4 hour drive; by plane about 42 minutes.

    So, I'm not sure. I have a feeling this line of searching isn't correct and will go back to it!

  2. Good day, Dr. Russell and everyone.

    [alabama satellite weather archives]
    [smokes alabama february 2016]
    [alabama february smoke sky]

    smoke in sky south of Birmingham

    Video of smoke

    [alabama prescribed burn] and [alabama prescribed talladega forest burn] then addes Search Tools, Last Year

    April 20th; Why those 1,100 acres of Talladega Forest burning today is a good thing.

    [Talladega National Forest prescribed burn]in All and in News

    A prescribed burn is a controlled fire ignited by professionally trained and experienced Forest Service personnel

    Forest Service Conducts Controlled Burns to Reduce Wildfire Threat to Alabama Communities

    Controlled burns to decrease threat of future wildfires. Source 2


    1. Can you identify WHY it looks like half of Alabama is on fire? What's going on in this photo?

    A: Prescribed, controlled burns in most cases. From FS usda site: "Fire is used as a critical management tool to improve plant and animal habitat and the resiliency of forest landscapes to withstand drought, insects and disease. At the same time, prescribed fire reduces the accumulation of hazardous fuels or forest undergrowth decreasing the threat of future wildfires."

  3. given your general description, date, direction of view, guessing you were looking at
    the remains of The Grand Bature Fire — searched for fires in that vicinity/location, found a name, searched Grand Bature Fire & Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge… you would be looking south ~ 25 miles to the fire's starting point.
    location & details
    additional info
    AL/MS line
    more news - seems to be on a scale it would be noticeable… as you did
    … then again, it could be agricultural/forestry prescribed burns?
    "I flag it in my notes with the prefix L/U (for "look-up")"… may need to add L/D (for "looking down") — for flying/aerial context…

  4. I don't know how far north is "just north" but there are several steel plants in Alabama, one in Calvert fairly close to Mobile, others in Birmingham. and one in between the two places. The plumes look similar to ones that I have seen here in the Pittsburgh area. I found some ground level pictures that looked similar. So this is my best guess, but not verified.

    1. I'm impressed with my fellow searchers. I think they are on the right track.

  5. [current wildfires in alabama] finds

    February 15, 2016 at 2:55 PM

    MOSS POINT, Mississippi-- A wildfire which started late Thursday in southeast Jackson County wildfire has continued to grow and had covered over 4,227 acres as of 9:30 a.m. Monday morning. . .a few homes or businesses near the Mississippi-Alabama line along U.S. 90 potentially faces danger from the wildfire.

    This looks promising


  6. jooc? which way/direction/airline were you flying?
    as others posited – just north of Mobile… Chickasaw? Mauvilla? perhaps Agricola, in Mississippi…? or Bay Minette – going the other way…
    …was checking dates; ran across this kinda-sorta familiar tome/time jog piece… 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 units, or 5, 26 hour Bajoran days…
    Friday, February 12, 2016, Medium
    zomg, this may be useful regarding today's challenge
    … but now I know what ZOMG means… just don't know why you used it…? XYKWIM?
    …if you had been flying at different coordinates in a few days, might have guessed it was this:
    April 30 or První máj
    …if you had been closer to the Gulf…

    any time the South is burning…
    sans lyrics
    the Last Waltz
    Mr. Cash
    Joan…and full circle - from CaptainJimKirk

  7. Hello everyone,

    By using the keywords "smoke and clouds in the sky of alabama" in Google, I found this page explaining the smoke dispersion phenomenon one can see in the picture.

    I also found this website, which archives data on air quality and fires. On the 19th of February (so maybe with data partially from the 18th), they show "a few smoke plumes from fires in and around Alabama".

    So, I guess that those are controlled fires, by a quite unstable weather (which explains why smoke rises so high in the sky), but not too unstable (because it seems still a little bit dispersed near the ground).




    Woods catch fire in South Mobile County. The newsclip and article were published on 20 Feb 2016. I'm not sure if there was a delay in uploading from 18 Feb. The newscaster says the fire happened around noon, which tallies with what Dan said. He said he was looking "south out of my window", so the direction matches as well.

    I went to search [intext:"mobile county"] under google news, then I narrowed the date range to 18 Feb 2016 to 21 Feb 2016. I buffered in a few days extra just in case the news was reported some days after 18 Feb. This news appeared as one of the top few results.

    I think the trick is to search for the phrase "mobile county". I tried [intext:"mobile alabama"] but that didn't get me very far. It's hard to get anything useful from the word 'mobile' unless it's forced together with a contextual word within double quotes. 'Mobile' is typically used for technology related info. This is the first time I've heard that it's the name of a county.

    Oh, i didn't get the word 'county' straight away. Got this clue when i searched "mobile alabama" in wikipedia. The page had the phrase "mobile county" which seemed very specific. And specific was what I needed to narrow down the news results from google.



    set for location, zoom and dates 2016 Fev 14 - 17,ct&s=2016-02-14&e=2016-02-17

    Shows clearly the requisite number of fires on that date in that area.

    I got to this because I have long subscribed to this for my area, now I see it is good for your area too


    1. After reading Jon's post and link

      [fire mapping alabama] [fire mapping alabama february]

      Wildfires - February 2016

      [national interagency fire center]


  11. Glad you explained your check shirt, Dan. I was about to search for it!