Wednesday, November 14, 2018

SearchResearch Challenge (11/14/18): How many wildfires in California over the past 20 years?

As you probably have heard… 

… California is suffering from an especially dramatic, draining, and difficult wildfire season. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not this is more fire than usual, or if it’s part of a longer trend.  As you might expect, there has been a lot of debate about whether this fire season is due to global warming, or if it’s just “forest mismanagement.”  

Regular Reader Ramón asked this question of me, and I thought it would be a superb Challenge for the  week.  

Here’s this week’s Challenge, based on Ramón’s original question… 

1. How has the number of wildfires changed over the years in California?  Where there more (or fewer) in the past than is taking place now?  

I suspect that the only way to answer this is to find an authoritative data base of California wildfires.  (Note:  I haven’t solved this Challenge yet, so I’m open to being surprised.)  Once we find that database, we might be able to easily create a plot of the number over the years and discover if there's any particular trend.  

For the sake of consistency and simplicity, let’s assume that any fire that’s larger than 10 acres in size is a “wildfire.”  

Can you answer the Challenge for this week?  

Let us know how you go about solving this one.  

Search on! 

P.S. For people worried about how close I am to the wildfires, they’re nowhere close.  On the other hand, we ARE getting a lot of smoke from the Camp Fire near Chico (up in the northeast part of the state).  The breathing has been hazardous at times, so I can only imagine how bad it is up there, near the fires.  

This is a composite image from NASA showing the size of the Camp Fire (Paradise, CA).  The white rectangle on the right is about 20 miles high (32 km) and 10 miles wide (16 km).  

Just to show it up close: 

This NASA image is from the Operational Land Imager aboard the NASA-USGS Landsat 8 satellite. California's Camp Fire on Nov. 8, 2018, around 10:45 a.m. local time (1845 GMT).
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from USGS


  1. Hello Dr. Russell.

    It is very sad that each year these fires get worst and no one can do something to solve/prevent or at least make them less dangerous. I know it is so hard and complicated topic and I am sure thousands work in the problem to solve it. I really hope next year we don't have fires like the ones we having in California this year.

    In a quick search tried [California wildfires through years] and found, yes a list, like in our previous Challenge

    List of California wildfires

    1. Good Morning

      I was trying some queries and also reading Googlemapsmania. They have at least 2 posts about this year California’s wildfires

      California Wildfire Damage Map

      Mapping California's Wildfires

      With [California wildfires through years]

      Camp Fire is now California's most destructive wildfire
      Today. The most destructive in the state's history based on the number of structures destroyed.

      July 31, 2018: The Worst Fires in Recent California History
      November 13, 2018. See how much of California has burned in the last five years “...CAL Fire estimates how many acres have burned each year, both in their own jurisdictions and those covered by the U.S. Forest Service. If we add up the total acreage from 2013 through 2018 we get 5,395,088 acres. California itself is about 100 million acres, which means that roughly 5.4 percent of the state has burned just in the past five years…”

      California Statewide Fire Map. Data and Statistics

      August 14th, 2018: VERIFY: Is 2018 the worst year for California wildfires? * this article was found while searching on family’s tablet last night, and this morning, with a very similar query couldn’t find on my lap. So to get the link, added to the query [verified]

      From there, the most interesting part is:
      Acres burned in CA wildfires since 2002 (Info via National Interagency Fire Center) 2007, 2008, 2017 and 2018, with more than 1,000,000 acres burned.

    2. Searched [California wildfires database]. In Cal fire site we have many data and statistics

      Number of fires and acres 2016-2017
      Number of fires and acres 2017-2018 through November 12,

      Number of fires and lightning fires 1984-2008

      Also noticed that from 1999 to 2008 wildfires went in decline

    3. Just found this interesting article.

      Camp Fire Spreads Foul Air in California From the article:"... One of them—the Camp Fire in Butte County—destroyed more than 10,000 homes and caused at least 63 deaths, making it the deadliest and most destructive fire on record in the state....In the United States, 35 percent of black carbon emissions come from wildfires. Transportation is responsible for 52 percent, and the energy sector and industry sectors produce the rest...." Includes animation

      As, Dr. Russell said, plenty of unhealthy air.