The West is a tinderbox this year, with heat waves and high winds through summer and fall expected to create the conditions for yet another brutal fire season.
“It’s just scary,” Alexandra Syphard, chief scientist with Vertus Wildfire Insurance Services and an ecologist at San Diego State University, told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve seen these severe fire seasons year after year now. Everybody’s nervous.”
The charts and maps below will update to track current wildfires and air quality, compare the 2021 season to previous years, and monitor the weather conditions that make fires more likely to ignite and spread quickly.
This table displays active fires that have so far burned 50 acres or more, recorded by the National Interagency Fire Center and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. You can search for any of the fires in the table in the map below to zoom in on the fire and see the perimeter for the area burned, if that data is available.
Tap or hover over the fire icons to see the name of each fire and the area it has burned so far. The map also shows any large plumes of smoke visible from satellites, recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hazard Mapping System.
Smoke plumes visible from orbiting satellites are often at high altitudes, so they may not affect air quality at ground level. But when wildfire smoke accumulates near the ground, it is hazardous for health.
Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via AirNow
This map shows the latest “NowCast” Air Quality Index (AQI) readings from permanent monitors in the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow network. The monitors detect levels of tiny, hazardous particles called PM2.5, extrapolated over wider areas where sufficient data is available.
These airborne particles, which measure less than 2.5 micrometers across, are the main health concern from wildfire smoke because they penetrate deep into the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and can even affect unborn fetuses, lowering birth weight if pregnant people are exposed to smoke. PM2.5 can also trigger heart attacks, asthma, and other respiratory problems.
PM2.5 starts to affect vulnerable people, including young children and those with respiratory conditions, above an AQI of 100. Anything above 200 is considered “very unhealthy” for everyone, while an AQI of 300 or more is rated “hazardous” for all.
Tap or hover over the circles to see the latest PM2.5 AQI for each monitor. You can also type a city into the search box to zoom in on that area.
Current drought conditions
Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via US Drought Monitor
One reason experts are so concerned about the 2021 wildfire season is that the West is in the grip of a historic drought. An unusually dry winter left soils and vegetation parched, and mountain snowpacks, which feed the region’s rivers, were well below normal. This map shows the latest assessment from the US Drought Monitor, which is updated each Thursday.
Fire weather and risks
Even against the backdrop of widespread drought, the risk of fires igniting and spreading rapidly depends on local weather conditions. This map shows today’s outlook from the US Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Assessment System, which calculates risk categories from weather forecasts and observations.
You can use the control at top right to view areas currently under “red flag” fire warnings issued by the National Weather Service. These are declared when warm weather, low humidity, and strong winds are forecast to produce a high wildfire danger.
How the 2021 fire season compares to recent years
Chart compares the 2021 season to the previous 10 years up until the same date. Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via National Interagency Fire Center
This chart compares the number of fires and total area burned so far in 2021 to the same date in each of the previous 10 years, according to data recorded by the National Interagency Fire Center.
But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. How hazardous wildfires are to people depends on when and where those fires happen. For example, large areas of the sparsely populated Mountain West or Plains states can burn without many homes, businesses, or people’s lives or health being threatened.
Last year showed how quickly circumstances can change. The 2020 season was running below the national average for the decade until mid-August, when “dry lightning” storms ignited a series of massive wildfires across Northern California and Oregon. The resulting disaster burned through entire towns in Oregon and created a pall of smoke that blocked the sun, casting large parts of the region in a sickly orange half-light in September and driving air quality into the hazardous range in some cities. By the end of the year, more than 10,000 buildings had been damaged or destroyed in California alone, and the total area burned nationally, at more than 10 million acres, was the second largest on record.
Climate change is making things worse
Total acres burned at the end of each year. Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via National Interagency Fire Center
This chart shows the total acreage burned at the end of each year from 1983 — when federal agencies began tracking using the current reporting system — through to 2020. While the area burned varies widely from year to year, the overall trend is increasing.
While media commentators sometimes describe recent severe fire seasons as the “new normal,” the truth is that ongoing climate change means things are likely to get worse for the foreseeable future. “We have not reached the peak,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told BuzzFeed News last year. “In fact, no one knows where the peak is.”
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