Pants on Fire Fire Geography

Yes, it’s time once again to whine about the New York Times and their simply spectacular grasp of western geography.  Consider the map below and then some text accompanying it:

The map below shows this year’s fires, as detected by satellite. There are blazes big and small all across the West, but wildfires have been especially concentrated along the mountain ranges of central California.”

Western U.S. ignition map, Jan-July 2015, New York Times

Western U.S. ignition map, Jan-July 2015, New York Times

Yes, you see that big swath of red dots across California and it should be, it must be, loads of forest fires! The mountains are just one big bonfire! Wildfires everywhere!

Now let’s take that map and put it on top of the topography:

SierraFireMap

Um, are we seeing things? Are those dots…in the valley?

In fact, a sharp eyed reader might note that SR 99 is shown on the Times map on the east side of nearly all these fires. And if you have driven in California, you know that between 99 and I-5 (which is more obvious on the map) is farmland. Very flat farmland.

What is going on is the typical action of farmers preparing fields and clearing canals in winter and early spring: they set controlled fires.  Most of these are not wildfires. The maps the Times made is largely made up of intentional agricultural fires (you can see the same thing northeast of Denver).  And had any clever soul in their graphics department compared the map with land use, they might have seen that this was the case.

So, once again, thanks, New York Times, for sharing your sense that the geographic realities of the west don’t matter and so preparing material utterly beside the point you are trying to make!

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2 responses to “Pants on Fire Fire Geography”

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  1. Geography lesson,George Will edition | The Grumpy Geophysicist - September 6, 2016

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