ScienceInfographic

Western wildfires have now burned an area bigger than New Jersey

Weather conditions and a huge backlog of management issues have led to the worst fire season on record—and it’s not over yet.

Early in the morning on September 28, while it was still dark, white ash floated down over parts of Sonoma and Napa counties in Northern California. By sunrise, fast-moving wildfires had burned more than 17 square miles of the state’s famed wine country, including a number of wineries and vineyards along the normally scenic Silverado Trail.

Recent fires in Washington, Oregon, and

California

Active fires since

Sept. 21, 2020

2020

2002—2019

CANADA

100,000

acres

Seattle

100 mi

Washington

100 km

Portland

Oregon

Idaho

UNITED

STATES

San

Francisco

Nevada

California

PACIFIC

OCEAN

Los Angeles

San Diego

MEXICO

Data as of Sept. 29, 2020

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NG STAFF.

SOURCE: NATIONAL INTERAGENCY FIRE CENTER

My brother, Ethan, was working the harvest on Fisher Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, and was ordered to evacuate that morning, along with more than 50,000 other people. As he left, he said, the sky was red and he could smell smoke through his face mask. “It was insane, and terrifying,” he told me.

This year’s wine country wildfires haven’t reached the size of infernos from past years, but they are growing and still threaten to swallow many homes and workplaces. Perhaps those most affected by the raging fires are the region’s seasonal agricultural workers. Many are Hispanic, being paid hourly wages, and they may find themselves without jobs or homes if these blazes continue. As thousands flee the smoke, making their way toward evacuation centers and houses of nearby acquaintances, there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. Anxiety, too. “This sucks,” Ethan told me while driving away from the vineyard, heading for our cousin’s house in Los Angeles. “This really, really sucks.”

Wildfire season in the West usually becomes intense in late October, peaks at the end of the year, and tapers off through the spring. But a confluence of factors has made this year’s season spark early and become particularly devastating. Up and down the West Coast, high winds, droughts, lightning storms, and human activity have all added up to deliver frequent and severe fires. The flames have burned 5.8 million acres so far in the three states most affected—California, Oregon, and Washington, a total area larger than the state of New Jersey. Wildfires have killed at least 36 people to date in those states and destroyed hundreds of homes.

In California, forest undergrowth has been allowed to grow in recent years, providing more fuel for the flames. Regional phenomena called the Santa Ana and Diablo winds also kicked in earlier than usual, driving raging fires in the already hot, dry conditions. In the normally moister forests of Oregon and Washington, droughts and high temperatures were factors, too, but easterly winds reaching speeds of 50 miles an hour—what scientists are calling a once-in-a-hundred-years wind event—caused the fires there to flame up fast and made them difficult to contain.

Since 2002, the average acreage burned by wildfires in these three states has increased nearly threefold. This year, fire season has been so bad that the air quality in parts of the West Coast was briefly the worst in the world—and experts predict more damaging blazes are still to come.

As of September 28, over 5.8 million acres have burned just this year in California, Oregon, and Washington.

6 million acres burned

5

4

3

2

1

2020

2002

2010

Oregon and Washington data as of September 23.

How much land is that actually?

Tennis court

2,808 sq. ft.

human

Tennis court

400-meter track

1 acre

400-meter track

Central Park,

New York City

840 acres

Central

Park

Manhattan

New York City

14,478 acres

The Two Four Two fire in Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon is almost the size of Manhattan.

Manhattan

New Jersey

5.6 million acres

The total area burned on the West Coast in 2020 is larger than the entire state of New Jersey.

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM staff. Oliver Whang, Kelsey Nowakowski. Sources: Washington State Department of Natural Resources; Northwest Interagency

As of September 28, over 5.8 million acres have burned just this year in California, Oregon, and Washington.

6 million acres burned

5

4

3

2

1

2006

2002

2004

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

2020

Oregon and Washington data as of September 23.

How much land is that actually?

Tennis court

2,808 sq. ft.

human

Tennis court

400-meter track

1 acre

400-meter track

Central Park,

New York City

840 acres

Central Park

Manhattan

New York City

14,478 acres

The Two Four Two fire in Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon is almost the size of Manhattan.

Manhattan

The total area burned on the West Coast in 2020 is larger than the entire state of New Jersey.

New Jersey

5.6 million acres

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM staff. Oliver Whang, Kelsey Nowakowski

Sources: Washington State Department of Natural Resources; Northwest Interagency

As of September 28, over 5.8 million acres have burned just this year in California, Oregon, and Washington.

6 million acres burned

5

4

3

2

1

2006

2002

2004

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

2020

Oregon and Washington data as of September 23.

How much land is that actually?

Tennis court

2,808 sq. ft.

human

Tennis court

400-meter track

1 acre

400-meter track

Central Park,

New York City

840 acres

Central Park

The Two Four Two fire in Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon is almost the size of Manhattan.

Manhattan

New York City

14,478 acres

Manhattan

The total area burned on the West Coast in 2020 is larger than the entire state of New Jersey.

New Jersey

5.6 million acres

Taylor Maggiacomo, NGM staff. Oliver Whang, Kelsey Nowakowski. Sources: Washington State Department of Natural Resources; Northwest Interagency