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    Record Wildfires on the West Coast Are Capping a Disastrous Decade

    With more than a month of fire weather ahead for large parts of the West Coast, the 2020 fire season has already taken a disastrous toll.

    Combined, over five million acres have burned in California, Oregon and Washington so far. Thousands of buildings have been destroyed by some of the largest fires ever recorded. More than two dozen people have died. Millions up and down the coast have spent weeks living under thick clouds of smoke and ash.

    “We’ve broken almost every record there is to break,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, referring to his home state, where catastrophic fires have become an almost-yearly occurrence.

    Data from two NASA satellites that can detect heat shows fire activity in California, Oregon and Washington in 2020 has already eclipsed even the worst previous year.


    2020 is the most active fire year on record for the West Coast

    Note: Cumulative sum of fire detections across California, Oregon and Washington. Data as of Sept. 21. Instruments on Terra and Aqua have experienced periodic outages.·Source: NASA Terra and Aqua satellite data, based on detections with greater than 95 percent confidence levels.

    Many fires that erupted in California in August were sparked by lightning strikes, including the August Complex, which has become the state’s largest. It has burned over 850,000 acres — an area larger than Yosemite National Park — in the northern part of the state. The deadly Almeda fire in Oregon is being investigated as possible arson.

    But outdated forest management practices and climate change — which brings hotter, drier conditions — have provided the kindling for infernos of such immense scale.

    In California, some of this year’s largest blazes encroached on areas that had already burned in recent years, again threatening lives and homes, and putting fragile ecosystems back at risk.

    The town of Paradise, which was nearly destroyed by the Camp Fire just two years ago, has faced evacuation warnings in recent weeks. Emergency crews are still battling nearby fires, which are among the largest in the state this year.

    In Oregon and Washington, fires have burned areas untouched for decades. Several towns have been “substantially destroyed,” according to Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon.


    Where major fires have burned this year in relation to previous ones

    Fires 2000-2019

    2020 fires





    Pearl

    Hill

    Beachie

    Creek

    Holiday

    Farm

    Archie

    Creek

    Biscuit

    2002

    August

    Complex

    North

    Complex

    Tubbs

    2017

    L.N.U.

    Lightning Complex

    Sacramento

    San Francisco

    S.C.U.

    Lightning Complex

    Thomas

    2017

    Los Angeles

    Cedar

    2003

    Pearl

    Hill

    Beachie

    Creek

    Biscuit

    2002

    August

    Complex

    North

    Complex

    San Francisco

    Thomas

    2017

    Los Angeles

    Cedar

    2003

    Pearl

    Hill

    Beachie

    Creek

    Holiday

    Farm

    Archie

    Creek

    Biscuit

    2002

    August

    Complex

    North

    Complex

    Tubbs

    2017

    L.N.U.

    Lightning Complex

    Sacramento

    San Francisco

    S.C.U.

    Lightning Complex

    Thomas

    2017

    Los Angeles

    Cedar

    2003


    Note: Only hottest historic fires are shown. Agricultural and other small fires may be excluded.·Sources: NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System (previous fires), National Interagency Fire Center (2020 perimeters)

    Nearly 20 percent of fires this year are burning in areas that were scarred by fires as recently as 2000, data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows.

    “Reburn,” as Dr. Swain called it, can happen after a year or two under “sufficiently extreme climate and weather conditions.” Vegetation that grows back after forest fires may also look differently than what grew before. New growth, including more flammable brush and grasses, could fuel fires and put homes and lives at risk again, he said.

    As the climate has warmed, fire season, which traditionally peaks in late summer and into the fall, has been expanding — sometimes starting as early as the spring, and lasting into late fall. Wildfires in the Sierra Nevada region and the Pacific Northwest have also gotten larger and more frequent in recent years.

    In the last 20 years, on average, the number of square miles burned annually across California, Oregon and Washington has increased sixfold compared with the average between 1950 and 2000.


    The amount of land burned on the West Coast each year has ballooned over the last two decades

    Note: Annual square mileage calculated from fire perimeters published by the National Interagency Fire Center. Excludes areas burned more than once in a year. Some years may have been mapped more precisely than others.

    Fires have become more destructive over time, especially as people have moved further into fire-prone areas. A majority of the fires that have destroyed the most buildings and structures have occurred in the past five years, according to a New York Times analysis of state data through the end of last week. Five fires this year are among the most destructive on record.

    The fires this year have not, however, been as deadly as some in the recent past. The Camp Fire, which claimed more than 80 lives in 2018, remains the deadliest in modern California history.


    Some of the West Coast’s most destructive fires have occurred this year

    Fire

    State

    Year

    Structures

    Deaths

    Acres

    Camp Fire

    Calif.

    2018

    18,804

    85

    153,336

    Tubbs

    Calif.

    2017

    5,636

    22

    36,807

    Tunnel

    Calif.

    1991

    2,900

    25

    1,600

    Cedar

    Calif.

    2003

    2,820

    15

    273,246

    Almeda

    Ore.

    2020

    2,350

    4

    3,200

    Valley

    Calif.

    2015

    1,955

    4

    76,067

    Witch

    Calif.

    2007

    1,650

    2

    197,990

    Woolsey

    Calif.

    2018

    1,643

    3

    96,949

    Carr

    Calif.

    2018

    1,614

    8

    229,651

    L.N.U. Lightning Complex

    Calif.

    2020

    1,491

    5

    363,220

    C.Z.U. Lightning Complex

    Calif.

    2020

    1,490

    1

    86,509

    Nuns

    Calif.

    2017

    1,355

    3

    54,382

    Beachie Creek

    Ore.

    2020

    1,288

    5

    190,138

    North Complex

    Calif.

    2020

    1,147

    15

    280,775

    Thomas

    Calif.

    2017

    1,063

    2

    281,893


    As wind fueled many of the fires in the last month, it also spread a thick blanket of smoke and soot across the region. Far beyond the fire zones, millions of West Coast residents lived under darkened skies and breathed polluted air.

    Major cities saw harmful particle pollution known as PM2.5 skyrocket, reaching levels considered dangerous for human health. In Oregon, several cities, including Portland and Eugene, smashed previous daily records for poor air quality during wildfire season.





    Air quality based on PM2.5

    500 µg/m3



    Source: Berkeley Earth

    Breathing in high concentrations of particulate pollution can worsen asthma and other respiratory problems in the short term, and can even lead to strokes or heart attacks. Oregon hospitals reported a 10 percent increase in emergency room visits for breathing problems during this month’s fires.

    Wildfire smoke has also been linked to longer-term consequences, like lower birth weight for babies and impaired lung function in adults.

    “Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to have these occurrences for the foreseeable future,” said Linda George, a professor of environmental science at Portland State University. “Policy makers need to make guidelines for people on how to protect themselves if this is what we’re going to see every summer or every other summer,” she said.

    Daniel Jaffe, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the impact of wildfires on air quality, said the only way to reduce the frequency of such “airpocalypse” events was to reduce the frequency of large fires.

    “If we could bar people from going into the forests and starting fires, that would help. If we could stop climate change, that would help. Better forest management would help,” he said. “But right now, it combined into the perfect storm.”

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