Weekly Wonder: Data shows unprecedented West Coast fires have burned 144 acres of land on average

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

BOSTON — Longer, costlier and more dangerous: wildfires in the U.S., particularly in the western and southwestern regions, have cast the sky a vermillion, apocalyptic hue during an already tense time in history. Far from being over, the year has already claimed six million acres of land–– up by 30% from last year, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. 

At first glance, it would appear that the number of active wildfires has declined. Cases had slid from 71,971 in 2010 to 50,477 in 2019. But a closer look at the number of acres of charred lands left behind shows that wildfires are covering more ground and are growing increasingly frequent. 

In 2010, a solitary case of wildfires burned 47.5 acres of land on an average. By 2018, the country was averaging nearly 151 acres of land lost to a single fire. That year had the costliest spell of wildfires, according to data from the fire center.

California, which has historically borne the brunt of the crisis, is at high risk of losing two million properties this year, according to Verisk Analytics, a data firm that specializes in conducting risk analysis. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced on Sept. 12 that it would provide federal assistance to Oregon, the second worst-hit state in terms of land lost to the fires. 

“The data is self-evident, the experience that we have in the state of California just underscoring the reality of the ravages of climate change,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 11 while taking stock of the damages. 

BU News Service looked at western regional data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and found that temperatures were 50.7% above the average temperature of 73 degrees during the summer months of July to August this year. 

Historical data between 2000 and 2020 show that warmer temperatures coincide with the worst periods of wildfires.

In 2017 and 2018, temperatures were 85.5% and 76.9% higher than usual. Those were also the years that wildfires claimed 18 million acres of land and the disbursement of nearly $6 billion worth of federal funding to suppress fires. 

“Mother Nature is physics, biology and chemistry. She bats last and she bats one thousand. That’s the reality we’re facing, the smash mouth reality — this perfect storm,” Newsom added in his remarks. “The debate is over around climate change.”

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