Why California wildfires are getting worse

A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise on Nov. 8, 2018. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

California has been spared many devastating wildfires so far this year. But for a reminder of the death and destruction they can bring, you only need to look at the searing images of the island paradise of Maui going up in flames last week — just as Paradise in California was turned to ashes in 2018. The Maui inferno’s death toll has surpassed the 85 killed in the Camp Fire to become the deadliest in the U.S. in a century.

Today, CalMatters launches a new way to track major wildfires in the state — a dashboard that features an up-to-date map that combines both state and federal information, that explores both the current and historical context of wildfires and much more. 

The dashboard — produced by CalMatters’ data and interactives editor John Osborn D’Agostino and data journalist Jeremia Kimelman — also features:

  • California’s wildfire history: Observe more than a century of the state’s wildfires with our animated map. Starting from 1900, you can see where fires often originate and the increasing frequency of wildfires in recent decades. Half of California’s 20 deadliest wildfires have occurred in the past two decades, and their intensity is increasing with climate change. 
  • The toll of wildfires: In addition to lives and acreage lost, our tracker has data on wildfire “dollar damage,” or the property and contents damaged by fire and smoke. Learn what year wildfires caused $12.1 billion in damage — the largest amount in California’s history — and more about the most destructive fires.
  • The cost of fire suppression: How much does it cost to combat wildfires? Hint: A lot. Cal Fire routinely spends more money than is budgeted to suppress wildfires, and in 2020, fire suppression costs surpassed $1 billion for the first time. Find out how much Cal Fire’s emergency fund has been since 1979. Also read more about the new technology and analytics being used to fight wildfires.
  • The impact on firefighters: Firefighters not only risk their lives but face PTSD and suicidal thoughts after battling huge blazes. The mental anguish is so prevelant that firefighters are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty. See how rates of suicide, grief and substance abuse have increased among firefighters over time. And spend some time with the award-winning “Trial by Fire” series by CalMatters’ Julie Cart.

The wildfire dashboard is a follow-up to CalMatters’ water and drought tracker to keep up with another consequence of climate change.

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