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Watch Video: The Science of California Megafires

Researchers are looking for an edge, or at least better prediction, as fires grow more dangerous.

By Matt HrodeyMay 23, 2023 1:00 PM
Bobcat Fire firefighter
A firefighter watches as the Bobcat Fire burns in Juniper Hills, California, in 2020. (Credit: Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock)


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The Thomas Fire, which ranks as one of the largest wildfires in California history, was a sign of things to come. Sparked by power lines, the conflagration burned some 281,800 acres in December 2017, a month that normally lies outside of wildfire season.

“There’s a new normal,” says Michael Gollner, head of the Berkeley Fire Research Lab.

He points to climate change, inadequate fire management and a trend of people moving into wildland areas as factors. The result is a new era of monster events known as megafires that burn more than 100,000 acres and tragically kill dozens.

The Camp Fire killed 85 people in November 2018 and burned about 153,000 acres.

Read More: How The National Park Service Is Working To Prevent Wildfires

Can Science Limit Megafires?

Gollner and other researchers, including Craig Clements of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University, are working to give firefighters and California communities an edge.

“We’re building new tools. We have new observations, and we need to integrate that into fire management,” says Clements.

Clement’s lab is working to develop a fire scanning and mapping technology using a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) device that can peer into smoke plumes and identify strong updrafts. Along with data from weather balloons, it can help predict how a fire will change and where it will go.

This video originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. You can view the original here.

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