New normal: more megafires

100000+ acre fires

(Click the image above to see a larger version.)

(Revised at 3:30 p.m. MDT, May 6, 2015)

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee distributed this very interesting graphic on May 5 showing an “exponential” increase in the number of fires larger than 100,000 acres — what we call megafires. At first glance it appears to indicate that between 1983 and 1996 there were one or fewer megafires per year, but in the last 10 years there have been more than 30 each year. This interpretation is reinforced by the text on the left, “Number of wildfires, larger than 100,000 acres in size that burned each year“. (Emphasis, mine.)

However, if you click on the graphic to see a larger version, you may notice that the years across the bottom are in groups of three. So the number of megafires are for three year periods, not individual years.

We checked with Jennifer Jones, spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service, who confirmed the following data for the previous 10 years found in the annual fire reports issued by the National Interagency Fire Center:

Fires larger than 100,000 acres (megafires)
2005 – 10
2006 – 15
2007 – 13
2008 – 5
2009 – 12
2010 – 3
2011 – 14
2012 – 14
2013 – 8
2014 – 4

Even taking the misleading graphic into account, this is very sobering data. The term “growing exponentially” is not an over statement. Prior to 1995 there was an average of less than one megafire per year. Between 2005 and 2014 the average increased to 9.8 each year.

While the number of megafires has increased by a factor of almost 10, the number of wildland firefighters working for the five federal land management agencies has decreased by 17.5 percent in the last four years according to testimony by USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2015:

Federal wildland firefighters
2011 – 16,000
2015 – 13,200

If more megafires and fewer firefighters is the new normal, should the land management agencies and landowners continue doing what was more or less working 20 years ago, and expect the same results they had then? Or, have conditions changed to the point where there needs to be a new assessment, implementation, or paradigm shift in:

  • mechanical fuel management,
  • prescribed fire,
  • the number and types of firefighting resources available,
  • management of encroachment into the wildland-urban interface,
  • technology that can make firefighters more efficient and safe,
  • firewise practices used by landowners,
  • reorganizing fire suppression in the federal government, and
  • state and federal funding for wildland fire.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

3 thoughts on “New normal: more megafires”

  1. Bill

    Have not we argued most of these points ad nauseum?

    Simply doing things like we have for the last 50 yrs in BOTH fire and forestry is clearly not working especially with all the laws and risk aversion, lack of real engagement with zoning officials, countless studies, and all the current computerized forestry operation that save work.

    Let us face the reality….a paradigm shift is needed and that includes the way BOTH LMA’s and the Hill do things.

    Thinking otherwise is near ignorance

  2. That graph is bogus. One wonders where they get their information.
    Besides the fact they present the number of large fires in a twisted way to make it appear we have a lot more than we do, according to that graph 1988 never happened. I question the entire dataset just because of that.
    ALL fires for 1992-2013 are available here:
    http://www.fs.usda.gov/rds/archive/Product/RDS-2013-0009.3/
    Check out the data, make your own decisions. Disregard the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, they’re obviously agenda driven.

  3. Much of this increase is “Big Boxing” fires to avoid direct attack and meet natural resource management objectives like reintroducing periodic stand replacing fire. The no holds barred aggressive firefighters of World War 2 are gone. Fatalities and near misses have increased. Caution leads to danger and waste, not to mention out of control costs of modern firefighting preferences for amenities. Double lunch and hook it.

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