The Science of How Wildfires Got So Hellish

They used to cleanse ecosystems and spur healthy growth. Then the humans meddled.

In this long exposure image taken at night, plumes of wildfire smoke rise as trees burn during the Dixie Fire near Susanville, Calif.Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty

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This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Wildfire are normally a critical component of a healthy landscape, but these blazes are now metastasizing into monsters that obliterate ecosystems. A wildfire that would once chew through a few dozen acres of underbrush, making way for new plant growth, now burns with extreme ferocity, producing so much heat and smoke that it can generate its own thunderclouds, which light more fires. Huge fires now regularly blacken swaths of land: California’s Dixie Fire has burned 950 square miles over the past month, making it the second largest fire in state history—and it’s only 31 percent contained.

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