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What It's Like to Fight a Megafire

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What It's Like to Fight a Megafire

Wildfires have grown more extreme. So have the risks of combatting them

The New Yorker,

5 min read
3 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Wildfires are getting worse, and firefighters are paying the cost.

Editorial Rating



  • Eye Opening
  • Concrete Examples
  • Engaging


Writing for the New Yorker, M. R. O’Connor describes wildfires from a statistical perspective – number of acres burned, number of dollars spent, number of lives lost – and from a boots-on-the-ground firefighting perspective informed by her personal experiences as a wildfire fighter. Reporting from the front lines of crisis management, O’Connor posts a tragic warning about the increasing difficulty of fighting massive megafires and about fiery hazards facing planet Earth if climate change remains unchecked.


Wildfires have grown progressively more severe and complex since the Nuttall fire in Arizona in 2004.

When a fire grows to 100,000 acres – a megafire – modern fire-fighting methods become ineffective and fire suppression costs soar into the millions. The Nuttall fire, which began in Arizona’s Colorado National Forest in 2004, marked the beginning of the age of megafires. If present conditions continue, the future will bring more extreme wildfires and increasingly hazardous conditions for firefighters.

The Dixie fire of 2021 was the largest in California’s history – nearly one million acres; suppressing it cost $600 million. Scientists warn that climate change is setting up perfect conditions for more megafires.

Scientists first observed one example of an extreme fire phenomena in the 1990s: A massive cloud-like structure that emerged over an Australian wildfire. They dubbed it a pyrocumulonimbus – or a PyrCb. Research has found that very strong fires...

About the Author

Certified wildland firefighter M.R. O’Connor’s books include Resurrection Science and Wayfinding. Her next book, Ignition, is about fire ecology. 

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    R. L. 11 months ago
    nice, i live in the central valley in northern california and when fires start up in the sierras you can get a thick layer of smoke down here, that lasts awhile.

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