Using New York and Chicago to Explain the Arizona Fire

A handy comparison or a case of urban self-obsession?

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The wildfire devastating eastern Arizona is massive, destructive, and growing fast. The latest reports put it at 625 square miles. That, according to Slate, is about the size of New York and Chicago combined. It's also 400,000 acres, or about 303,030 football fields. But the city comparison seems to be the one people go with. Yesterday, a few stories led with the news that the fire had exceeded an area the size of Phoenix. Others put the area at twice the size of Chicago. In fact, those two numbers are just about identical: 475 square miles.

It makes all the sense to put such massive disasters in these terms. The questions come with news outlets' decisions to use one city or another for comparison. Phoenix is a logical choice, as it's the capital of the state where the fire is raging. The New York Times also measured the area in terms of Chicago and New York, which makes sense because of where the paper is published. But the Los Angeles Times didn't compare the fire's size to Los Angeles (a workable comparison at 469 square miles), instead opting for a Phoenix. So maybe it's just that New Yorkers really do need everything compared back to New York. By the way, the last time L.A. got a mention as a unit of measure, according to a Google search, was in a May 27 Financial Times story about a Scottish castle.

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According to Wikipedia, the largest city, by area, in the United States is Sitka, Alaska, with a total area of 4,811 square miles. Phoenix is the tenth largest. If the fire reaches Sitka-size, it will be burning about 4.2 percent of the state of Arizona. The rest of the numbers coming out of the ongoing disaster are sobering. Thousands have been evacuated over the 12 days of the fire, including most recently the 8,000 residents of Springerville and Eagar, according to ABC. Some 2,500 firefighters are on the scene, and the fire has gotten within eight miles of power lines. With high winds and dry conditions, the fight to keep the fire from growing any larger than Butte, Montana (716 square miles) is going to be a tough one. But we'll forgive the media for forgoing that comparison.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.