TEDx: “Living (dangerously) in an era of megafires”

Why are fires getting bigger?

One of the talks at the TEDx hosted in Bend, Oregon in May was about wildfires. U.S. Forest Service Research Landscape Ecologist Paul F. Hessburg, Sr. gave a 15-minute presentation on megafires, explaining how fires have changed, and why, over the last 100 to 150 years.

Here is an excerpt from the official description of his talk:

Paul tells a fast-paced story of western US forests–unintentionally yet massively changed by a century of management. He relates how these changes, coupled with a seriously hotter climate, have set the stage for this modern era of megafires. He offers clear tools for changing course, a sense of urgency, and a thought-provoking call to community action…

If you live in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Utah you will have an opportunity to see in September and October a souped-up 70-minute, multi-media, traveling presentation on this subject, featuring Mr. Hessburg.

Preliminary data indicates there have been 18 megafires this year

Okanogan Complex of fires
Structure protection on the Okanogan Complex of fires, August 21, 2015. InciWeb photo.

The National Interagency Fire Center has officially adopted the definition of a megafire (that we have been using for years) as a fire that burned at least 100,000 acres. Their preliminary data for 2015 shows 18 megafires —  so far. This includes complexes (counted as 1) and individual fires. According to NIFC this ties the record that was set in 2006, for most megafires in one fire season.

However their data for 2006 is different from the information we received from the U.S. Forest Service last May:

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

100000+ acre fires megafire
This graphic is unusual, in that the megafires are in groups of three years. If you click on the image to see a larger version, you’ll see the three-year groups across the bottom.

While the number of megafires has increased since 1983, 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

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.