Why wildfires are raging so close to U.S. cities this year

The La Tuna fire burns above downtown Burbank, California, on September 3, 2017.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images
The La Tuna fire burns above downtown Burbank, California, on September 3, 2017.

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?

Extreme heat got us into this mess

Let's start with the obvious: It's been hot. All-time temperature records have been broken up and down the West Coast over the last few weeks. San Francisco hit 106 last Friday (the old record was 103 degrees) and a slew of Bay Area cities also topped their previous highs.

It's not just heat, however, it's the combination of heat and low humidity sticking around. The West has been gripped by a high-pressure system that's prevented the current hot, dry weather pattern from moving along. Amazingly, this same high-pressure system locked Hurricane Harvey into a crawl over Houston, breaking the continental U.S.'s all-time rainfall total for a single storm.

The drought is still to blame

Although the five-year drought in the West technically ended with historic rainfall this past winter, that doesn't mean that the landscape is no longer vulnerable to fire. Many parts of the Pacific Northwest did not get drought relief, meaning soil and fuel moisture is still very low. Plus, the drought killed so many trees (an estimated 26 million just in California's Sierra Nevada) that forests have acres of dead timber drying in the summer sun like logs awaiting a campfire.

One interesting sidenote: In some places, the heavy rains that busted the drought may have actually made the fire season worse. So much vegetation has grown and now dried out that the fires have more fuel to burn than they did during the drought summers.

Smoke is in many ways just as dangerous

Even if you're hundreds of miles from an active fire, there's a good chance you're affected by the smoke—which is spreading evidence of the fires and their destruction in a very visible (and very unhealthy) way. The jet stream is currently positioned over the biggest fires in the Pacific Northwest, dragging that smoke

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Smoke from wildfires contain particles which are toxic to humans. In fact, the air pollution from fires is one reason that extreme heat is predicted to be responsible for more climate-related deaths in the near future. Cities as far away as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are posting warnings about dangerous air quality.

Sprawl is pushing homes into dangerous territory

Wildfire isn't a new threat—it's been destroying cities for centuries. But the way we've been building cities over the last few decades is making those fires far more destructive. More Americans are moving into what's known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where suburbia butts up against wilderness areas. Since the late 1970s, the number of Americans living in WUI lands has doubled, and 60 percent of new U.S. homes have been built on WUI lands since 1990.