November 29, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘See How the Dixie Fire Created Its Own Weather’

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Featured Article: “See How the Dixie Fire Created Its Own Weather” by Nadja Popovich, Noah Pisner, Nicholas Bartzokas, Evan Grothjan, Daniel Mangosing, Karthik Patanjali and Scott Reinhard

The Dixie fire that has ravaged Northern California since July is finally contained — after having destroyed nearly one million acres, an area larger than the size of Rhode Island, making it the second largest fire in state history.

In this lesson, you will learn how the Dixie fire grew so intense that it powered its own weather systems, spawning towering storm clouds, lightning and even some “fire whirls,” spinning vortices of flames.

In the Going Further activities, you will learn how California started a military-style campaign to fight the Dixie fire and explore the human impact of the largest blaze of this past year.

Part 1. Reflect on the following questions:

  • What do you know about the wildfires in California and the Northwest this summer — some of which still burn today?

  • Do you know anyone who was affected by them?

  • What more do you want to know about the wildfires?

Part 2. Make a prediction.

Look closely at the above video of a storm cloud created by the Dixie fire from July. (Rewatch several times if needed).

Based on the video and what you already know about wildfires and the weather, how do you think the Dixie fire was able to create its own weather systems, with storm clouds, wind, lightning and rain?

Share your predictions with a partner.

Read the featured article, then answer the following questions:

1. Look at The Times’s 3-D model depicting the creation of a firestorm on July 19: What do you notice? What do you wonder? What did you find most fascinating or surprising about the model?

2. In your own words, explain how the Dixie fire powered its own weather systems, including storm clouds, lightning, wind and rain. What role does heat, condensation and moisture play in this process? What is a Pyrocumulonimbus, or pyroCb for short, cloud?

3. Compare your prediction from the warm-up activity with the actual process. What predictions, if any, did you get right?

4. Understand the scale and scope of the Dixie fire by finding some numbers in this article: How many firestorms did it create over its life span? How many acres of land were destroyed since the fire began? What altitude did the largest fire clouds reach? Taken together, what picture of the Dixie fire do these numbers present?

5. “Wildfires on the West Coast have grown larger and more intense in recent years,” the Times article says. What factors have contributed to the landscape burning at record scale?

6. How was The Times able to reconstruct a 3-D model of the Dixie fire’s first massive thunderclouds? What other natural environmental phenomena would you like The Times to render in a 3-D model?

7. Media Literacy. Why do you think The Times chose to tell the story of the Dixie fire’s firestorms visually? How would the article be different if it were a traditional, text-only piece on wildfires?

Option 1. Learn more about the fight against the Dixie fire.

At the height of the containment operation, 6,579 people worked around the clock to battle the Dixie fire. Officials spent more than $610 million over three months to bring the fire under control — by far the most expensive suppression campaign in California history.

Read “Inside the Massive and Costly Fight Against the Dixie Fire” to learn how California mobilized a military-style operation to contain the wildfire. Then, write about or discuss with a partner: How does the article add to or change your perspective on the Dixie fire? What quotation, image or video do you find most memorable, provocative or informative? What questions does the article raise for you about the costs of containing wildfires? Do you agree with experts who wonder whether California’s approach to fighting wildfires is sustainable? What alternatives would you suggest?

Option 2. Learn about the human impact of the Dixie fire.

The Dixie fire burned through nearly a million acres across the Sierra Nevada, prompting mass evacuations and destroying thousands of homes, businesses and other structures, including much of the town of Greenville. Learn more about the human toll of the blaze by reading one of the following articles:

Then, write about or discuss with a partner: How does reading about the Dixie fire from a human-impact perspective add to or change your understanding of the story that numbers and graphics alone could not communicate? What did you find most surprising, moving or memorable? What questions does the article raise for you about how we should think about the growing crisis of wildfires in America?

Option 3. Learn more about wildfires and their connection to climate change.

In “Wildfires Are Intensifying. Here’s Why, and What Can Be Done,” Winston Choi-Schagrin writes:

By nearly every metric, the wildfires in the Western United States are worsening. They are growing larger, spreading faster and reaching higher, scaling mountain elevations that previously were too wet and cool to have supported fires this fierce.

He continues:

Wildfire experts see the signature of climate change in the dryness, high heat and longer fire season that have made these fires more extreme. “We wouldn’t be seeing this giant ramp up in fire activity as fast as it is happening without climate change,” said Park Williams, a climate scientist at UCLA. “There’s just no way.”

Read the entire article, then answer the following questions in writing or discussion with a partner: What are two new things you learned about wildfires and why they are intensifying? What quote, image or statistic was most provocative or memorable? What is your reaction to the remedies explored in the article?


Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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