Wildfires have always plagued the West, but according to the National Interagency Fire Center, thirty-six wildfires burned through eight western States this past year. Around 2.5 million acres have been burned across the west in states ranging from California to Wyoming. Over the last four decades, due to the dwindling winter snowpack and warming spring and summer temperatures, the number of large fires has increased. Check out this interactive map, produced by Climate Central, that shows the number of annual fires over 1,000 acres in each western state, compared to the state’s annual spring precipitation and temperature rates.

Find hundreds more engaging math-focused media and integrated activities, all aligned with CCSS at PBS LearningMedia.

Suggested Activity:

Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to

  • describe and interpret the overall shape of a numerical data set
  • find the median of a numerical data set
  • use measures of center and variability to compare two numerical data sets
  • define the mathematical terms below

Common Core State Standards: 6.SP.A.3, 6.SP.B5, HSS-ID.A.2, HSS-ID.A.3

Vocabulary: Acre, containment, decade, variation, mean, median

Materials: For the class: computer with large monitor; per pair: computer with Internet access; per student: pencil, calculator, Western Wildfires worksheet

Preparation: Make copies of the worksheet. Then, research the acreage and extent of damage of one or two large recent U.S. wildfires.


  1. Introduction (10 minutes, whole group)

Initiate a discussion of major U.S. wildfires in the last year, prompting for students’ understanding of acres and  containment. As needed, explain these terms with reference to a wildfire you researched.

On a large monitor, use the U.S. Wildfire Activity component of the interactive to explore any active wildfires.

Briefly review the information on the interactive up to Western Wildfires on the Rise;  establish that number of wildfires, wildfire size, length of wildfire season, and average temperature have all increased over the past few decades.

Demonstrate Western Wildfires on the Rise, using the graph that represents the western U.S. region as a whole. Ask students for a benchmark of 1,000 acres in their community (i.e., size of a local park); if needed, supply one yourself.

Engage students in discussing the shape of the data for the number of fires in the western U.S., with a focus on the first and last decades shown. Prompt with questions such as:

●  Is there much variation within each decade?

●  Are there any big bumps in the graph? What happened in those years?

●  Is the mean for each decade similar?

2. Using the Interactive: Western Wildfires on the Rise (15 minutes, pairs)

As students sit in pairs at computers, distribute calculators and the worksheet. Review the instructions and, if needed, review how to find the median of a numerical data set. Assign states to pairs or let students choose. Demonstrate how to click on a state to access information.

As students work, circulate to encourage them to describe any patterns they observe:

●  Does the number of fires increase each year within each decade? How do you know?

●  How does the average temperature line change across the decades?

●  How does the average snowpack line change across the decades?

Ask those who finish early to find and record similar data for the western states as a whole and compare with the state they investigated.

3. Conclusion (5 minutes, whole group)

As students share findings, prompt them to make comparisons and observations. For example, ask, Does anyone have a state with a higher mean number of fires than Colorado? How does the average spring temperature in that state compare to Colorado’s?

In the remaining time, engage students in using data to make a persuasive argument about wildfire prevalence over time: How could you use the data from today’s lesson to convince someone that western wildfires are increasing?


Activity Extension: Students explore the data in the Acres Burned per Year graphic, comparing millions of acres burned in the first and last decades shown.

This activity is based on work developed at TERC.


An Interactive Map Tracking Western Wildfires 2 June,2014Laura Robledo



Laura Robledo

Laura Robledo studied English at UC Berkeley. When she is not reading, looking up new music, or running half marathons, she loves to explore the beautiful city of San Francisco.

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