Skip to content
CityLab
Maplab

The Incendiary States of America

A detailed map of U.S. wildfires since 1980 reveals the growing role of human causes.
Firefighters battle a brush fire near Ventura, California.
Firefighters battle a brush fire near Ventura, California.Gene Blevins/Reuters

California is burning, which is nothing new. But the wildfires now raging in and around Los Angeles—for which President Trump declared a state of emergency on Friday—are coming extraordinarily late in the season; by now, California’s rainy season should have eased the risk of uncontrollable conflagrations. Grist’s Eric Holthaus calls the Thomas fire, the largest of the blazes now devouring L.A. hillsides, “the first wintertime megafire in California history”—and lays the blame squarely on climate change.  

But in many other ways, this conflagration is business-as-usual for a part of the world that has long been shaped by a cycle of regular burns. As The New Yorker’s John McPhee wrote in 1988, the chaparral that fuels these blazes thrives with wildfire: “In a sense, chaparral consumes fire no less than fire consumes chaparral. Fire nourishes and rejuvenates the plants.” He also wrote that “[i]gnitions are for the most part caused by people—through accident or arson.”