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Every American Wildfire In The Last 36 Years, Mapped

As fires rage in California, this map by Jill Hubley offers a broader look at the data on what typically causes wildfires.

Every American Wildfire In The Last 36 Years, Mapped
[Photo: Bill Boch/Getty Images]

As the gates of hell open near Los Angeles and northern California starts to recover from its own massive fires of October, it feels like wildfires are getting more frequent. Everyone is asking how so many of these fires can happen at the same time.

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Citylab found the answer in this map by Brooklyn-based web developer Jill Hubley, who gathered 36 years of data about wildfires in the United States, categorizing them by cause:

Explore the interactive map here. [Screenshot: jillhubley.com]
Hubley used Federal Wildland Fire Occurrence Data starting in 1980, painting human causes–like accidents or arson–in orange and natural causes in green. As you can see, California is mostly populated by orange dots, which is not surprising according to this 1988 New Yorker article that says that these wildfires “are for the most part caused by people—through accident or arson.”

Explore the interactive map here. [Screenshot: jillhubley.com]
We don’t know how this particular rash of fires started yet, but we know that these wildfires are cyclical regardless of their cause. In that same New Yorker article, author John McPhee points to the very nature of the terrain and its vegetation–lots of shrubs and bushes known as “the chaparral”–as the root of this cycle: “In a sense, chaparral consumes fire no less than fire consumes chaparral. Fire nourishes and rejuvenates the plants.”

Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t take into account some imbecile setting off a chain reaction while the region is experiencing high winds. Fire prevention may cost some money, but the economic losses of these fires–projected at $85 billion before the Southern California fires even started–are magnitudes larger.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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