Record-breaking wildfires are burning in the USA — again.
Sometimes, it seems to me that extreme wildfires are a recurring theme in our global headlines. Australia. Brazil. California. But why? Is what we’re seeing unusual? Or are we seeing a pattern that will repeat itself if we fail to act on climate change?
To understand what’s happening and how it affects our society, we need data. And for that we have access to open data platforms. Through these platforms we can stay informed, predict the future, and make plans to protect the things we love.
Using Global Forest Watch, Resource Watch, and PREPdata to explore the data, it’s clear that this year’s fires in the USA are worse than normal. And what’s more, there are signs that things could get worse.
Where are wildfires burning in America right now?
Wildfires are burning in the western states of Washington, Oregon and California. Colorado too has recorded a higher than normal number of fire alerts.
NASA’s VIIRS fire alert data can be visualised and analysed using Global Forest Watch. The data goes back to 2012 and a selection of data widgets adds context that helps us understand how unusual (or not) this year’s fires are in comparison to previous years.
According to the data available on Global Forest Watch, the number of fire alerts recorded so far this year is high compared to previous years. A total of 36,866 VIIRS fire alerts were recorded between 1 January 2020 and 14 September 2020. The number doesn’t yet exceed the record for 2018 but this year’s fire season isn’t over yet.
To see which states are worst affected, there’s a widget on the data dashboard that analyses the fire alerts by region. In the last four weeks, California has had the most significant number of fire alerts, with 10,911 in total. This represents 52% of all alerts detected in the USA and is unusually high compared to the number of fires in the same period going back to 2012.
Let’s take a closer look at the wildfires in California, Colorado, and Oregon. How does this year compare to previous years?
As of 14 September 2020, California had recorded 16,676 VIIRS fire alerts. Compared to data going back to 2012, the number this year is unusually high, and already exceeds the 7,153 fire alerts recorded in 2018, the year of California’s most deadly wildfire. Again, we can’t tell what area has been burned from this data. For that analysis, I recommend taking a look at reporting from the LA Times Graphics and Data Journalists Priya Krishnakumar and Swetha Kannan.
In Colorado 2,019 VIIRS fire alerts were reported between 1 January and 14 September 2020. This total is unusually high compared to the total for previous years, going back to 2012.
The graph below shows how unusual the number of fire alerts in Colorado has been this year. The number of fire alerts in Colorado peaked in the week of 10 August with 799 alerts. What we cannot tell from this dataset is what area of land has burned.
With 5,544 VIIRS fire alerts recorded this year, the number of fire alerts recorded in the first week of September in Oregon was unusually high, both in terms of the number recorded at this time of year and the cumulative number for the year.
What is the cause of the fires in the USA?
When it comes to the spark that ignites the flames, there’s no one single cause. Lightning strikes, arson, fallen power lines, and explosives used at gender reveal parties have all caused fires. But there’s something much more fundamental at play here — climate change.
This summer’s extreme heat and dry conditions are a recurring theme that points towards a long-term shift in climate conditions. California is historically drier than the northern and eastern states of America — and climate models predict it will get drier over the next 20–50 years. Other states will see less rain too. And if that happens, which it already is, conditions will be prime for even more fires.
The Sonoma Country Climate Resilience Team predicts there will be unprecedented warm conditions in both summer and winter seasons, potentially extending the fire season in California.
For a more in-depth look at the climate predictions for Sonoma Country, take a look at their climate adaptation plan.
What are the impacts of wildfires?
Loss of human lives, homes, businesses, and wildlife are the immediate and tragic consequences of wildfires. But it’s not just flames that threaten lives. Smoke from fires affects air quality, potentially creating conditions that are hazardous to humans.
Resource Watch is an open data platform that provides data on VIIRS fire alerts, smoke plumes, and air quality. On the days 13–14 September, air quality was very unhealthy or hazardous in the states of California, Oregon and Washington.
Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organisation. Strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases are all linked to air pollution.
Fires can affect air quality in towns and cities that are hundreds of miles away from the flames. Take San Francisco as an example — the apocalyptic September skies were caused by the Bear Fire burning 150 miles away. The map below shows the extent of smoke plumes across the USA, Canada, and Mexico in the week of 7–14 September 2020.
The social impact of climate change.
So far, this year’s wildfires have forced more than 460,000 people to flee their homes, either temporarily or permanently. Those whose homes burned down will have to rebuild or find housing elsewhere. And this is the current reality of climate change. People in every country of the world are being forced to evacuate due to natural disasters made worse by climate change.
In 2018, 1,247,000 people were internally displaced within the USA due to natural disasters. Worldwide, 17.2 million people were internally displaced. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, weather-related hazards, particularly storms accounted for the majority of these movements. If our weather gets more extreme and events like we’ve seen in California become more common, then more people will be displaced in the future.
But displacement isn’t the end of the story. Studies show climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally. In fact, disadvantaged groups are more likely to be exposed to climate hazards, more susceptible to the damage caused by climate hazards, and have a lower ability to cope with and recover from the damage. With each exposure to a damaging event, their ability to cope with the next one decreases, leaving people in a vicious circle. Climate change is a social issue as well as an environmental one, and tackling the crisis requires an intersectional, multidisciplinary approach.
It doesn’t have to be this way forever.
Climate change is no longer a distant possibility. It’s happening right here, right now — and people in California, Colorado and Oregon are experiencing the very worst consequences. What happens next is down to us. Local authorities and national governments have to work together to develop and enforce effective climate policies, but at every level of society there are leaders and champions who inspire change in their communities. Informed by data, we can do what’s right for our planet. It might not be easy, but the right thing rarely is.