California, Oregon, and Washington, along with nine other states in the West are now experiencing record-breaking wildfires. According to experts, there are a number of reasons: climate change is creating the underlying conditions for more extreme weather events. Heat waves over the summer dried out much of Western forests, which were already impacted by years of drought and bark beetles. Unusually high winds have spread embers. And human activity in the wildland-urban interface keeps creating new sparks: downed electrical lines have set many blazes, while, infamously, a gender reveal party with a “pyrotechnic device” created a massive conflagration.
Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.
According to ESRI, the sources of fire data in the map are the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) — both of which are updated every 15 minutes. Smoke forecasts are incorporated from the National Weather Service and show 48-hour forecasts updated every hour. ESRI adds that when zoomed-in, users can see additional fire data from NOAA/NASA satellites, which detect the locations of recent “thermal activity” that indicates fire direction. (ESRI also has a map with local disaster response data).
Western states offer maps with near real-time data as well. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) is tracking containment efforts for all wildfires and providing updates on evacuation orders. The Oregon Department of Forestry is following large active fires, as is the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Washington State.
The National Interagency Fire Center finds that in the western U.S. more than 5 million acres have burned during this year’s fire season, which runs from May through September.
In California alone, more than than 2.5 million acres have gone up in flames. According to The New York Times, that is 20 times more than what was burned last year and a modern record. In Oregon, 900,000 acres have caught fire, causing half a million people to evacuate, which is more than 10 percent of the state’s population. And in Washington state, an unprecedented 480,000 acres have burned just in one week. There are currently 100 large active fires across the West.
Beyond the incredible loss of life and property, breathing in wildfire smoke can cause serious health issues. Blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.
According to researchers at Stanford University, the risks of toxic wildfire smoke are especially high for children, the elderly, and those with asthma. Studies have shown that after five days of major wildfires, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks increased by 400 percent, and the number of visits for strokes by 42 percent.
For those out West, please take every precaution by closing windows and doors, running air purifiers, and regularly checking the latest evacuation orders.
In a useful primer, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions outlines the many connections between climate change and wildfires. The organization states: “climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be more dry and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western U.S.”
Planners with Cal Fire see wildfires primarily as a land-use problem. Many communities in western states are at high-risk of wildfires because they were developed in the wildland-urban interface, which the U.S. Forest Service describes as places where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.” State and local governments can discourage development in fire-prone areas. This can reduce the risk of human-caused sparks and also prevent property and lives from being destroyed by fires that spread increasingly rapidly through these vulnerable areas.
Other solutions identified by communities out West are early warning systems coupled with remote sensing technologies, defensible space landscape design for homes and communities, and prescribed burns that can help clear out dead trees and accumulated biomass before they become a dangerous source of fuel for fires.