2012 was a very busy wildfire season. The Federal government and some states exhausted their funds set aside for suppressing fires. The number of acres burned, 9,093,431 as of November 22, 2012, was the third highest since national wildfire statistics have been kept beginning in 1960. Remaining at the number one and two spots are 2006 with 9.9 million, and 2007 with 9.3 million.
You may not be able to say that a specific home run hit by Barry Bonds was caused by performance enhancing drugs, but the record he set in 2001 for the most home runs in a season is probably related to the steroids. While you can’t assume that a specific large fire was caused by global warming or a reduction in the number of ground and air firefighting resources available, when a trend is observed over a period of years it becomes more statistically significant and worthy of study.
Six of the last nine years had more burned acres than in any year between 1960 and 2003.
We constructed the charts below from statistics provided by the National Interagency Fire Center and the Alaska Division of Forestry, through November 22, 2012. While the numbers above include stats for the state of Alaska, the figures below do not include that state because fire management in Alaska is an entirely different animal. Some fires there are not suppressed at all, and many of them are only managed in a limited fashion. The number of acres burned in Alaska can vary widely, for example from 43,965 in 1995 to 6,645,978 in 2004. If you are going to analyze trends, we determined it is best to separate Alaska from the lower 49 states. While stats for the entire United States go back to 1960, it appears that the numbers prior to 1986 are suspect, perhaps as a result of a change in 1982 in the way the statistics were collected. We were able to find numbers for Alaska going back to 1990.
The average size of fires can tell you more than the raw number of fires or acres, because it can reflect changes in climate, or how the fires were managed or suppressed, such as the number of firefighters available, budget cuts or increases, or changes in the number of air tankers available (from 44 in early 2002 to 9 in 2012).
The number of wildfires has been decreasing, while the average size has been increasing rapidly.
We set another record in 2012 for the average size of a wildfire in the lower 49 states. In fact the previous record set only last year of 114 acres per fire was completely blown away by 48 percent, increasing to 165 acres per fire in 2012.
The bottom line
Whatever the reason is for having larger fires and burning more acres, the wildfire suppression paradigm we have been using for the last decade has become obsolete and we need to try something different. The declining budgets we have been seeing over the last several years are obviously not the answer. Neither is attempting to fight fires “on the cheap”.