A confluence of factors has sparked one of the U.S.'s most active wildfire seasons in recent memory, upheaving thousands of residents, and generating so much smoke it's blanketing the Midwest. Not only that, the fires are uncomfortably close to several big cities, making it even more difficult for emergency crews to address them. Why is the country suddenly aflame?
Currently over 80 large fires are burning tens of thousands of acres across nine states in the Western U.S. and into Canada. Fires in Oregon, Idaho, and Montana have been threatening structures and triggering evacuations since July, including popular recreation areas like the Columbia River Gorge and Glacier National Park. British Columbia has declared its worst fire season on record. Over 100 fires are burning just in Washington, and last weekend, California saw one of the biggest fires in Los Angeles city history.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported yesterday that about 7.8 million acres have burned in the U.S. this year. "While it is unlikely that this season will be record-breaking for modern fire record keeping in the western United States, it is above normal relative to the last decade—which has seen abundant fire activity," said John Abatzoglou, a climate and atmospheric scientist at the University of Idaho.
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But it's not just the West that's been affected by the fires. Smoke has blanketed many major cities, some hundreds of miles from an active fire. All across the country, people are posting similar photos to social media: Sickly yellow skies, cars covered in ash that looks like snow flurries, apocalyptic sunsets.
So what exactly is making this year's fire season so devastating—and so widespread?