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Science and Technology

Wildfires: What can we learn?

Climate change, human activity and deadly blazes

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  • California has a known "wildfire season." [TIME]

  • Sept. 2020: California has seen some 2.3 million acres burn so far this year, compared to just 118,000 acres at this time in 2019. [NPR]

  • Sept. 2020: Oregon wildfires have killed at least 3 people and burned over 200 square miles. [The Oregonian]

  • Heat, oxygen, and fuel are needed for a wildfire to start. [Department of Agriculture]

  • CA's unique climate is a combination of everything needed for a wildfire.

  • Experts believe the warm temperatures, low humidity, strong winds, and lack of rainfall throughout the early fall contributed to the 2018 wildfire outbreak. [Axios], [The New York Times]

  • California has been in a state of drought since 2000. [NIDIS] The typical amount of rainfall for the region may have been enough to prevent the 2018 fires from spreading. [USAToday]

  • About 4 out of every 5 wildfires in the U.S. are started by humans. [National Geographic], [AccuWeather]

  • Many are warning that these fires will only "get worse" from the impacts of climate change.  [TIME]

  • Former CA Governor Jerry Brown believes climate change is apart of the reason for the growing intensity of California wildfires. [NPR]



CIVICS: Recent actions by the California legislature has put the state government at odds with the national government. Where do state and federal powers lie in handling these environmental crises?  


SOCIAL: Due to the conditions that have allowed fires to expand, Former Governor Brown said the fires are part of "a way of life in California" and is apart of the “new normal." [NPR] How should Californians live in this new normal? Do Californians need to accept this new reality of evacuations and destruction, or is there more the state and citizens can do to prevent these deadly events?



Build it safe

Limiting homes built in wildland areas is among the steps that can be taken to limit their impact. [USA Today]



Public edu.

The deadly Camp fire was started by a man-made fire. The California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (CWCG) is investing in public education campaigns on campfire safety and public permit rules. [CWCG]



Battle climate change

Some scientists agree that if substantial changes are made to stabilize global warming, the effects of climate change could significantly reduce. [National Geographic]


In an effort to battle the rising temperatures, the State of California has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. [State of California]



Local leaders

While the fires are creating dramatic circumstances in California, local officials are taking steps to ensure they don’t become routine. [The Los Angeles Times]




According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July 2018 was California’s hottest month to date. Climate change continues to threaten the state as temperatures rise. [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]


The warm and dry conditions across California in July created “ideal wildfire conditions,” NOAA said. [TIME]




The low humidity in California creates a dry, more flammable environment. [The Los Angeles Times]


California has been in drought for six years, creating dry, flammable plants and less moisture in the ground. [USA Today]




In the fall, the Santa Ana winds bring the potential to make things worse. The dry winds fan the fires and cause them to "jump." The winds can produce gusts ranging from 40mph to 80mph that create larger potential fire zones. [The New York Times]




How communities are built played a big role in these wildfires becoming deadly. In the wildland development areas, the fire department was 45 minutes to an hour away. [UC Berkeley


Another large role of the fires in California was Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). [Frontline] Read an in-depth report from Frontline about a decade of safety rollbacks from the company held liable. 


  • Aug. 2020: CA governor calls the current wildfires "historic". Get live updates from The Guardian.  

  • Jun. 2020: Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) plead guilty in court to causing the 2018 Camp Fire by its faulty equipment. [BBC]

  • Several PG&E downed power lines were found as the culprit for the fires that destroyed Paradise, CA.

  • June 2019: PG&E agreed to pay $1 billion for damages caused by their downed power line. [The Associated Press]
  • Sept. 2019: PG&E began implementing "blackouts" or cutting off power to residents to prevent electrical-related wildfires. [NPR], [The Sacramento Bee]
20180730 westernfiresNASA

A satellite image shows how the smoke from California's 2018 wildfires is blanketing the West.


  • 2018 was the most deadly historical wildfire season in CA. [TIME] How will 2020 fare?

  • Read the specific steps California is taking to reduce CO2 emissions here. Read more about how deadly the smoke from the fires can be.

  • These charts reveal why the wildfires have had such dramatic effects in California.
  • Fires can also maintain diverse and healthy ecosystems. Learn more.

  • Take a look at what firefighters face when tasked with trying to put out a wildfire.

  • Need to be ready for a wildfire? Here's a list to get you ready.

  • Read "How the West Was Primed to Burn" from National Geographic.

Key Vocabulary