California’s Wildfire History – in one map

Here is an interesting interactive graphic that depicts perimeters of more than 100 years of California wildfires recorded by Cal Fire and the U.S. Geological Survey. The map below shows all the cumulative fires from 1878 to 2018. It seems as if there is very little of California that has not been touched by wildfire. Large areas of desert in the southeast are mostly untouched due to lack of vegetation.


From the About page:

This map shows the perimeters of wildfires that have burned in California from 1878 to 2018 using data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey. The wildfires are categorized by the year in which they started. Perimeter information from fires that started between 1878 and 2017 comes from Cal Fire, while information on the Thomas Fire and fires that started in 2018 comes from the USGS.

Cal Fire says that their dataset — which runs from 1878 to 2017 as of January 2019 — is the most complete dataset of California wildfire perimeters before 1950. However, the pre-1950 information shown here is incomplete and should not be used for further analysis.

Cal Fire’s data on this map shows timber fires that burned more than 10 acres, brush fires that burned more than 50 acres and grass fires that burned more than 300 acres. The USGS data comes from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, which have lower acreage requirements for recording fire perimeters. Because of that, Cal Fire’s data is less comprehensive than the data of their federal partners, which was used for the 2018 fires shown on this map.

This map shows the perimeters of Cal Fire and the U.S. Geological Survey’s recorded wildfires, but it should be noted that not everything within a wildfire perimeter has burned. This means that the areas shown here do not necessarily represent burned areas.

CapRadio changed the names of two fires from the names reported by Cal Fire. Cal Fire’s names for the fires included a racial slur, so we have edited the word in accordance with Associated Press guidelines and our own standards.


Here is the interactive link:

http://projects.capradio.org/california-fire-history/#6/38.58/-121.49

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36 thoughts on “California’s Wildfire History – in one map

  1. “names for the fires included a racial slur, so we have edited the word “…to undocumented immigrants

  2. Well, it is a Mediterranean climate, so it dries out enough every year enough to burn, and most of the vegetation is adapted to fire.

  3. Funny how they don’t want pre 1950 data used ‘for analysis’ as that data clearly shows how many acres of forest burned in the early 20th century. It’s hard to make scary graphs of acreage burned when you have to include the pre 1950 fires which dwarfs the typical fire acreages today. Not saying that’s why they say that (I didn’t look up the California data) but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    • I played around with the interactive map for a bit … once I used the link provided at the bottom of the story and once I used a different browser. 🙁

      Based on the interactive map, more land has burned since 1950 than burned before then. I suspect the reason they don’t want the pre-1950 data used is that it isn’t complete.

      • That would be splicing data that used a different reporting method.
        And you mustn’t use spliced datasets.
        Like bucket sea temperature and intake sea temperature,
        or treerings and thermometers. 😛

      • It may not be complete, but it would establish a lower bound on the area burned. If that lower bound is comparable to or greater than recent burning that would certainly undermine the CAGW disaster narrative.

      • cB, how did you determine that more land has burned since 1950? Just a visual guess? I ask because I do not see something that would be very helpful: a chart or just a number in the box showing total acres burned each year (and even average burned by natural causes and non-natural) that would change as you scroll through the years. It appears to me that more acreage burned in years that there was drought then other years or periods.

        • With the slider at the extreme left you see the pre 1950 fires. Then click on the ‘See all fires’ button. The burned area is visibly larger. I’m pretty sure you would agree.

  4. I suppose it would be Politically Incorrect if CalFire had provided that map in 20 year incremental overlays of different colors, even though the data is certainly available. Such a person would have found himself on firewatch in Blythe or some other lovely spot.

    • And before 1950, of course no one then knew how to measure acreage burned or fly an airplane over the area to take pictures. Just like they could read or site a precision glass-mercury thermometer so today NASA and NOAA have to keep adjusting their pre-1950 UHI impacted station readings downward.

      “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
      ― George Orwell, 1984

    • Newsflash!

      It burns every time there is sufficient fuel and ignition of material.
      Many of the fast growing and medium growth plants are highly flammable; e.g. creosote bush, sagebrush, tumbleweeds, grass, junipers, cedars, etc. etc.

      “Burn once” is a false statement.

    • At least in California, there are areas that can burn every year. In fact, the local indigenous populations used to do that in some of the coastal areas before the Spanish took over. (Burning grass scared their horses and cattle.)

      • They (the Mi-Wuk) also burned out forested areas of trees they didn’t want so they could plant trees they wanted.

  5. So it’s possible some areas shown as post 1950 could also have burned long/decades before then, restored itself, and burned again. No?

    • Brush and grass fires can happen every year – or more often, depending on the weather patterns during a particular year.

      There are areas around SE Arizona that almost always burn twice in a year – once after spring rains and in the pre-monsoon period (when they are ignited by dry lightning strikes), and again after the monsoon rains and in the fall / winter (usually ignited by humans).

      Far fewer of the winter fires this year, thanks to the rains, although if we stay in a prolonged dry period now…

  6. Thanks for that map Anthony. As you know Paradise dodged the bullet numerous times- not this time.

    I was raised in Paradise and over the decades, some out of town, have lived in 13 houses/apts in Paradise. Everyone of them are now leveled to the ground. I live in Magalia now. The fire came within 30 feet.

    I am grateful to have been unharmed – so sad for so many.

    • G Mawer— my daughter’s house in Magalia also survived; the flames came up to her street then stopped. My husband and I lost our home in lower Paradise, as did all but three houses in our immediate neighborhood; why those were spared we can’t figure out, nor can our neighbors.

      One long time resident, whose family owned much of the land around our area 100 years ago, and who has spent all his 80+ years in Paradise on the family land, had warned us when we bought about the fire danger. His house is one that survived!

      I loved living there, but now that I better understand the fire danger, I realize it was going to burn at some time, no matter what, and evacuations we’re going to be the nightmare they were. We have now bought a house in Chico, and sadly, will not rebuild. Best of luck to you!

  7. It is clear looking at that data that, 1951, 1966, 1984,1999, 2008, 2018, had big fires all around Paradise-Concow. The only thing that seems explanatory is that the build-in of human development over that last 20 years into the wildland-urban interface made the 2018 fire so inevitably deadly and destructive and unable to control in a occupied/urban setting.

  8. How many native plants in California would die out if loss of fire meant their mechanism of germination were fatally impaired?

    Although wildly dangerous to humans, fire is one of nature’s great renewal mechanisms: burning of old, unhealthy plants, creation of fertile ash atop the soil, stimulation of germination to produce new vigorous saplings.

    I wonder how many Green Evangelists understand the role of fire in sustainable natural ecosystems?

      • A guess that is wrong.

        e.g.:
        Sequoias, redwoods and many of the taller conifer trees are dependent upon fire releasing seeds from their cones.

        The National Park System puzzled over the lack of sequoia seedlings for decades until the fire mechanism was proven. Now fire is recognized as essential for California woodlands.

        Non native invasive plants are overwhelming native grasses and plants in many areas. Fire is being considered a critical means to maintain native vegetation.

        • AThheoK
          I am not sure which of Rhys Jaggar’s two questions [1st & 3rd paragraphs] that Mike is answering.
          My guess [FWIW] is the second – “How many Green Evangelists . . . . .?”

          Auto

    • In Napa County, CA we have seen the bloom of flowers that have not bloomed since a fire in the 1960’s. It only comes out after a fire, and blooms for two years. There are numerous other bushes/plants/flowers that have come back stronger and more plentiful because of the fires. There was concern that at least one of the plants was going extinct due to the lengthy passage of time since the last fire where it grows, and it apparently is unique to Napa County. One organization has looked into controlled burns but has only been able to have two in over 10 yr span b/c of all the paperwork, regulations, permission that has to be granted, etc. Life is a cycle, the so-called environmentalists are short sighted and just plain wrong so often – such as their claims re: spotted owl needs old growth, which was wrong and yet there is no issue with the wind farms killing off our California golden eagles – soon to be extinct.

  9. I grew up in So Cal in the 50’s and 60’s. I remember every year when the Santa Ana’s rolled in there was a major fire. Most often in the canyons around Malibu and in the San Fernando Valley. The difference was in those years the weren’t too many people or houses in the area. Today those same areas are densely populated. Yes as the map shows California has been burning for decades, and I am sure centuries .

  10. This is not a comment about California, but about fires in the eastern US. Happened to be searching online newspaper archives for a city in England in 1876 and came across a report in the local newspaper reporting on Forest Fires in the US from the New York Tribune …. Seems like there were big and repeated problems back then [and even making international news!}, way before we drove cars.
    Amongst the text is the editorial from the New York Tribune, which includes the following “We are again suffering from what threatens to become an annual visitation…. the streets and shores seem to smoulder under a veil of dull blue haze… From the west and north-west, over the intervening hills and lowlands, the smoke of burning forests drifts down upon us…. Sometimes a large forest-fire in Southern New Jersey will for days obscure the air of all Pennsylvania east of the Alleghanies…”

  11. Remember that when the first spanish expedition came to San Pedro Bay in 1543, they named it “Baya de los Fumos” – The Bay of Smokes.

    Frequent fires is a normal and inevitable phase in the life-cycle of mediterranean vegetation. It can only be avoided by destroying the natural vegetation and replacing it with non-pyrophytic species (leaving the soil bare is usually not practical due to erosion/slides).

  12. The interactive map clearly shows that since the 1950’s when most fires were just yellow, fires have got redder and redder each year!

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