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The Shadow

California fires: Visualising the spread

This fire season in California has burned 4,105,786 acres since January 1st 2020, beating 2018’s record by almost twice as much. To visualise the amount of acres that have burned each year, this article will use data from Cal Fire and NIFC to give a short overview on how the escalation of wildfire intensity has changed in California over the course of the last two decades.

Photo taken from Ringo H.W. Chiu in Spectrum News

At global level, this August was recorded to be the second warmest on record. The lightning strikes in August has sparked a number of fires in California. The wildfires are burning millions of acres in California and other parts of the Western US, razing entire neighbourhoods to the ground and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people. With this reason, this article and the maps have been created to raise awareness to the issue.

According to the US National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), of the 52,834 fires to date this year, burning a total of 9,539,554 acres across the United States. California remained in the first spot, with 7,072 human-caused fires reported.

Weather, climate and water-related conditions were also conducive to rapid wildfire growth.

To visualise the California wildfires and the destruction of the wildfires wrought, here’s a visual guide to the amount of acres and the major areas that have burned since the last two decades with the top biggest fires for comparison.

The fires have devastated millions of acres.

On the 9th of this September, the August Complex North fire has become the state’s biggest recorded fire — covering more than 1 million acres. Nearly 16,500 firefighters continue working to gain containment on the 28 major wildfires across California.

To better understand the extent of the wildfires in California, we have compared the 10 severe blazes burn from the decade before.

Top 10 Fires Perimeters in 2000–2010
Top 10 Fires Perimeters in 2010–2020

According to Cal Fire, there are 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred this year. In Cal-Fire’s list of the top twenty largest wildfires, 8 of the top 10 have occurred in the last 10 years, and 17 of the top 20 have occurred since 2000.

With the increasing intensity to climate change, the region’s wildfires are the worst in 18 years.

The bar graph below details the burned area in California since 2010. The situation has significantly worsened after 2012.

According to the NIFC, 6.7m acres (2.7m hectares) have been burned this year, so far.

Since August 15, when California’s fire activity elevated, there have been 24 fatalities and over 4,200 structures destroyed.

Data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) — which monitors daily wildfire activity worldwide using satellite observations of their intensity to estimate emissions of atmospheric pollutants, has tracked the long-range transport of the smoke as far as 8,000 kilometres away to reach Northern Europe. CAMS has also revealed that the fires in the Western United States are significantly more intense than the 2003–2019 average for the whole country.

The fires burning in California since mid-August have emitted vast quantities of thick smoke that have affected a huge area. The fires emitted an estimated 21.7 megatons of carbon in California. Overall emissions for Western USA were up to estimated 30.3 megatons of carbon.

Final Thoughts

As California has already broken records, little attention has been given to the issues that influence wildfire behaviour and how they impact our environment. We’re still just at the early edge of climate change and with these fires as wake-up calls, it’s time we all get together and start working on this very seriously.



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