Science & Technology

We Asked a NASA Scientist: Are Wildfires Getting Worse? [Video]

The Camp Fire wildfire in 2018 burned a total of 239 square miles, destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 85 people. Researchers say it also produced lingering brain trauma in some of those exposed to the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Are wildfires getting worse?

Yes, unfortunately, they are. We’re seeing increases in the intensity and the severity, the overall burned area of wildfires and the duration of fire across the fire season. And while fire is a natural part of ecosystems, what’s really driving this change is we’re seeing a lot of changes in our climate. We’re seeing increases in global temperature as well as more extreme weather events, so longer droughts. And so we have these hot and dry conditions, which makes vegetation, forests and grasses more available to burn because they’re drier.

And so with these drier conditions and these drier fuels, we’re likely to see more fires. And this is happening in many locations all across the world. This can be really detrimental to the ecosystem, but also to human health, where we’re seeing people going to the hospital with respiratory issues and smoke can just travel many thousands of miles with these fires.

Changes in our climate, along with other factors, have led to wildfires increasing in intensity, severity, size, and duration. NASA climate and wildfire expert Liz Hoy explains how and why NASA studies these events from the ground, air, and space to better understand the impacts they have on both a local and global scale. Credit: NASA

How can we help? What can we do? One thing that I find really hopeful is that NASA continues to study wildfires around the globe. We have people going out on the land to make measurements. We have airborne campaigns that fly around to better understand wildfires from the air, how it’s impacting smoke, where wildfires are burning. And then, of course, we have satellite imagery, which gives us a global picture of wildfires all around the world all the time.

So are wildfires getting worse? Yes, they are. But there are ways that we can all think about this together. And I think just learning about these issues and being able to share that with other members in our community is a way we can all go forward and think about climate change and wildfires.

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