U.S. wildfires by date and year

US wildfire acres by date and year

Bob Kowalski (@nwwildfire) made this excellent chart after combing through Situation Reports for the last 10 years from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). He said May ended with about 390,000 acres burned so far in 2015. The numbers represent U.S. wildfires reported to NIFC. The chart is used with his permission.


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.

The number of employees in federal land management agencies is declining

Number of employees land management agencies

The number of employees in the five major federal land management agencies has decreased by 6 to 33 percent over the last 11 years. According to data compiled by the Best Places to Work website, the decline in the size of the work force at the agencies is stunning — especially at the Bureau of Indian Affairs which has seen their workforce slashed by 33.5 percent. Frequently we hear from critics that government is growing, but it certainly isn’t at the outfits that employ the most wildland firefighters.

The actual number of firefighters in these five agencies is difficult to ascertain, but we have figures that were submitted in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2013. In the two hearings, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the number of firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior was 16,000 in 2011 and 13,000 in 2013. That is a 19 percent reduction in a two year period.

An example of this is at Everglades National Park, which is currently experiencing a “workforce realignment”. That’s National Park Service-speak for a major budget reduction. They are still figuring out the details, but it appears that their fire management staff will be “realigned” from about 35 to around 25 employees.

While the number of acres burned in the United States homeland is increasing, the number of wildland firefighters available to suppress them is doing the opposite. Firefighters are being laid off while we spend trillions of dollars on ill advised adventures on the other side of the world.

Acres burned, number of firefighters

We have more wildland fire statistics in an earlier article.

Job satisfaction at the land management agencies

The Best Places to Work website also has other interesting data. Every year the U.S. Office of Personnel Management conducts a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asking employees dozens of questions about their perceptions of what it is like to work at their agency. Below are some examples of the questions from the 2014 survey:

Examples of questions FEVS survey

A Best Places to Work index score is calculated based on responses to three questions in the OPM survey:

  • I recommend my organization as a good place to work.
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
  • Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?

The 2014 survey index score for all of the major federal land management agencies declined except for the Forest Service, which showed a significant increase.

Best-places to work

To see the details of the survey results, visit these pages on the Best Places to Work website:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Paula.


NFPA report about vegetation fires

The National Fire Protection Association has produced a report about vegetation fires. The organization only takes into account fires that were reported by local fire departments, and did not consider fires reported by state and federal agencies, which leaves out national and state lands such as parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and BLM lands.

Here we have the eye candy (an infographic) and below that the executive summary. The entire report is here.

NFPA vegetation fire stats NFPA vegetation fire stats

Executive Summary

Fires in the wildland/urban interface have often been in the news in recent years. Nine of the 25 costliest (in terms of property loss) fires in U.S. history were described as forest, wildland or wildland/urban interface fires. The eight costliest fires were in the last two decades. Federal or state agencies are typically involved in these massive fires. The term wildland/urban interface (WUI) is typically used to describe areas where extensive vegetation mixes with numerous structures and their inhabitants. WUI fires of note often begin and grow large in the vegetated areas before spreading to structures.

Many people do not realize how often local (municipal or county) fire departments around the country are called to smaller brush, grass and forest fires.

During 2007-2011, local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 334,200 brush, grass, and forest fires per year. This translates to 915 such fires per day.

  • Only 10% of these fires were coded as forest, woods, or wildland fires;
  • Two of every five (41%) were brush or brush and grass mixtures;
  • More than one-third (37%) were grass fires; and
  • 13% were unclassified forest, brush or grass fires or unclassified natural vegetation fires.

In three-quarters (76%) of the brush, grass, and forest fires handled by local fire departments, less than an acre burned. Only 4% burned more than ten acres. Fires in forests tended to be larger than other vegetation fires. Only three-fifths (59%) of the forest fires were less than an acre, while 9% consumed more than ten acres.


President’s proposed fire budget calls for modest increases

Dollar Sign

The President of the United States has released the administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 which begins October 1, 2014. President Obama is requesting a 4.8 percent increase in the wildland fire budget for the U.S. Forest Service and a 7.1 percent increase in the fire budgets of the four agencies in the Department of the Interior with wildland fire programs.

Of course there are two disclaimers. It is only a proposal from the Administration. And, Congress, which has not passed a budget in four of the last five years, must vote to pass it or come up with one of their own. Getting Congress to agree on what day of the week it is would probably be difficult.

The Department of the Interior’s fire budget is 8 percent of the size of the USFS fire budget. Fewer details were released about the DOI budget but they requested a 4.3 percent increase in funding for hazardous fuel management and a 7.1 percent bump in wildland fire management.

More information about the USFS proposal is below.

FY 2015 proposed USFS fire budget FY 2015 Proposed USFS budget resources summary

The USFS included the information below

The FY15 President’s Budget , which include legacy airtankers, next generation large airtankers, and an agency owned C-130H aircraft. The Forest Service will exercise options under the exclusive use contracts for additional airtankers, if necessary. The agency will also phase out the legacy airtankers as the next generation large airtankers become available, thereby maintaining between 18 to 28 contracted and agency-owned next generation large airtankers as identified in the Large Airtanker Modernization Strategy. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) transferred seven C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service. The aircraft will initially be transferred to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting and installation of a retardant delivery system. One C-130H airtanker may be available for airtanker missions in late 2014.

The NDAA provided $130,000,000 to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting all seven aircraft and $5,000,000 each for the installation of the retardant delivery system. The Forest Service will pay for operation and maintenance of the C-130Hs within our requested budget by implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability. Programmatic efficiencies include implementation of the optimized dispatching analysis, streamlining of our information technology (IT) investments through the Wildland Fire IT initiative and a decrease in programmatic administrative costs, such as managing aviation assets under national contracts, streamlined hiring processes, centralizing training opportunities, and shared fire leadership positions between administrative units.

Some interesting passages above include the fact that this proposal “will fund 25 airtankers under exclusive use contracts”, which would be a huge increase from the 9 under contract in 2014. If they receive funding for 25, but actually produce a much smaller number, we will have some questions.

And, one of the seven C-130H aircraft the USFS got from the Coast Guard may be fully retrofitted as an air tanker and could be available before the end of 2014. Gannet newspapers wrote that two of them will not need to have their wing boxes replaced, a 10-month process that costs $6.7 million each. Of course all seven of them need to have retardant tank systems installed.

Another interesting part was “…implementing programmatic efficiencies and identifying firefighter resource allocation changes that will decrease our costs and maintain or increase our operational capability.”

The administration intends to maintain the same number of USFS firefighters as for the two previous years, 10,000. We went through the budgets as far back as FY 2002 and accumulated the following statistics about the number of firefighters in the agency. Obviously the number for 2015 is proposed.

Number of USFS firefighters, 2002 - 2015

Next we have the average size of fires. As they grow larger, the number of USFS firefighters has remained the same or decreased.

Average fire size, United States, excluding Alaska

Note: Alaska, the northernmost state, was not included in the above analysis because the state has numerous very, very large fires in remote areas that sometimes are not suppressed at all. Including these low priority fires which can exceed 100,000 acres each would skew the averages.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ken.


Measuring the severity of a fire season

By some measures the 2013 wildfire season in the United States was less severe than usual. In the lower 49 states this year to date there has been a decline in the number of fires, the number of acres burned, and the average size of fires. Sounds pretty good so far, right? But there was a sharp rise in the number of firefighters that were killed on fires — 34 so far this year.

Wildland Fire Fatalities 1990 through 2013

Not only did the number of fatalities more than double over last year, according to the data from the National Interagency Fire Center, but the linear trend shows an increase since 1990. The wildland fire fatality statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Fire Administration show even higher numbers for most years.

Of course more than half of the fatalities this year occurred on one fire, the Yarnell Hill Fire which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. But if that terrible tragedy had not happened, there would still have been 15 fatalities, the same number from the previous year. Between 1990 and 2013 to date the average number of wildland fire deaths is 18 each year.

We can do better. We have to do better.

More wildfire statistics:

Structures lost in wildfires, 2009 to 11-25-2013

Below are some statistics on wildland fire occurrence in the United States from 1990 through today. The numbers are for the lower 49 states, which excludes Alaska, a state that in 2013 to date has had 609 fires that blackened 1,319,234 acres, about half the number of acres that burned in the other 49 states. Fire management in Alaska is very different from the rest of the country. Some fires there are aggressively suppressed, but many fires are not staffed at all, some are fought with small numbers of firefighters, and others only get attention in areas where a remote cabin is threatened. Including Alaska numbers with the rest of the country would skew the trend analysis.

Number of wildfires, lower 49 states, 1990 - 2013

Acres burned lower 49 states, 1990 - 2013

Average size of wildfires, annually, lower 49 states, 1990-2013

Average size of fires by decade, lower 49 states, 1990 - 2013