The World is on Fire

Yesterday morning I rode my bike along the river. The smoke in the air cast a hazy halo over the valley. By ten o’clock, the temperature was up and the heat made the ride difficult. But the increasing smoke was becoming oppressive. By 4:00 in the afternoon, the smoke was acrid and thick. Fire season in the northwest has arrived. As I rode I decided I should build a new firemap.

Fires are currently raging in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Idaho with Montana sure to see increased wildfire in the coming weeks with the hot, dry weather. California has a number of big burns, and Arizona continues its several year run of large fires. Currently, there are few fires of interest in Montana, but the plume of smoke billowing over the mountains from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia has everyone in Western Montana gasping for air.

For the last few years, while I worked at the local newspaper, I would put together a fire map of all the current fires in this part of Western Montana. The project grew to include all fires reported on Inciweb in the U.S. Those maps only recorded currently active fires. I always wanted to do a map that showed everything in a year, active and inactive, just to show the full extent of fire in the U.S. So, here that is, the 2014 (Cumulative) fire map for the United States and British Columbia, Canada.

There is a story in the map that I find fascinating. But it was a story that I came to over several years as I built visualizations of fire data. Each year, the maps look quite different. While in most recent years the total number of fires remains large, there is yearly change in the areas of concentration. The areas where huge fires develop changes sometimes dramatically, other times subtly. Last August the big fires were in Idaho and Montana. This July those fires are in Washington and Oregon. (Check out the Buzzard Complex fire in Oregon which is currently over 272,000 acres. That’s a big fire.) How will this map change in the coming weeks?

I present this information not as a commentary on climate change, nor to take a position in the debates that surround that subject. I am not a fire scientist, I’m an information technologist. My interest is in the presentation of the information. I’ll let others decide for themselves if there is significance. All the data for the US is reported via Inciweb and the Canadian data from the government of British Columbia’s wildfire web site. Each of those sources present statements of limitation on the accuracy on their data. Those limits are hereby acknowledged.

Click here to view this map in full screen.