As of October 27th, the estimated area burned is 8.28 million acres which is 127% of the 10-year average of 6.54 million acres (NIFC). California was particularly hard hit, accounting for about half of the area burned and shattering records, including the August Complex fire which is pushing a million acres alone. The visual below shows major fires across the United States, their causes, the area burned, suppression cost, and structures destroyed. Though in many ways the fires in 2020 have toppled records in terms of acres burned, this is part of a bigger trend where acres burned is on an upward trajectory. As the climate warms and dries, wildfires are likely to continue increasing in size (Abatzoglou & Williams 2016).
To get a sense of how wildfire seasons are changing with time, the two most recent climatological periods are compared below. A climate period is typically defined as a 30 year period to measure average weather. It is important to consider long-term trends because certain events, like the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, can cause major shifts in weather patterns in 3-7 year periods, and therefore influence the number of wildfires each year. California was chosen as a study area due to their long history with wildfires and the available data. Cal Fire, California's fire agency, keeps comprehensive wildfire records dating as far back as 1878. The visualization shows fires aggregated into two periods, 1960-1989 and 1990-2019. For the State of California, the period of 1990-2019 has had 2.18x more area impacted by wildfires compared to 1960-1989. Most counties have seen a significant increase in area impacted in the recent climate period. Of the top 20 wildfires in California history, only 1 occurred pre-1960, 2 occurred between 1960-1989, and 11 occurred between 1990-2019. The other 6 have occurred in 2020 alone.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) keeps records of the acres burned on US wildlands. Since 1983, which is the year the NIFC began confirming these records, the number of fires has not increased, but the area burned has increased year-over-year. As with California's wildfires, there is a national trend of larger fires. On average throughout the period of 1983 to 2020, the area burned increases by about 175,000 acres each year while there is no trend in the number of fires. It is clear that wildfires are becoming a larger problem with time in the United States.
A Wildfire visualization project for CS6630-Fall 2020
Designed and built by Huy Tran, Taos Transue, Troy Saltiel