2012: Third highest number of wildfire acres burned

Wildfire Acres burned, all 50 states, 1986-2012

Wildfire Acres burned, all 50 states, 1986-20122012 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.

Wildfire Acres burned, Lower 49, 1990-2012


Number of wildfires, lower 49 states, 1990-2012

Average number of wildfires, by decade, lower 49 states, 1990-2012

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.

Average wildfire size, lower 49 states, 1990-2012


Average wildfire size, by decade, lower 49 states, 1990-2012

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”.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

13 thoughts on “2012: Third highest number of wildfire acres burned”

  1. Bill, I’m curious, in your analysis of acres and number of fires burned, how many were lightning and how many were preventable (human caused). I’m also curious how the reduced number of fires compare to when the USFS went MEL with it’s fire department.

  2. I am surprised that no one has mentioned that connection to increased development in the WUI as part of the problem. Surely fewer air tankers, climate problems have something to do with it, but I would be willing to bet that increased population and human interaction in the WUI also have some effect. Certainly prolonged drought in the west and southwest is also to blame.

  3. I wonder just how many times the quick responce from the heli-attacks mounted from the Custer County Airport kept fires from becoming large in the Black Hills of SD this summer. Living near the airport it was very obvious that quick intial attack was the order of the day–I think they got it right –well done.

  4. Can’t change the climate. Fuel conversion that will provide a healther and less fire prone ecosystem is not happening on any large scale. Is it right to allow fires to escape after day of burning without adequate initial attack from fixed wing air tankers? Spend a day at any Cal Fire air attack base and count how many times the aircraft respond to reported fires. Over two hundred reponses per base is not uncommon per fire season, probably closer to three hundred this fire season.
    Many of these fire which only burn 30-40-50 acres (potential for thousands of acres plus homes) usually make the fourth page of the newspaper as “matter-of-fact”. Today in the 21st century immediate adequate initial attack by fixed wing airplanes is the best “card” we hold for reducing the number mega fires. What else can we do short term?

  5. Would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the number of air tanker hours flown and the fire size or acres burned … or perhaps gallons of retardant dropped or some other metric that correlates air tanker usage versus fire size or acres burned.

    1. Seems like a “simple’ minded response to a complex problem. There’s way more here than not enough IA capability: fuels, weather and long-term climatic conditions come to mind at first blush. “Throw more $$ into the IA pot” will not resolve the problem or get us out of the long-term trend that we’re in. The decades-old numbers of successful IA responses have not changed significantly, only change is the fire intensity and duration. Welcome to wildfire management in the 21st Century!

      1. Airtankers, folks not enough to go around.
        From 50/44 since the great grounding of still useful aircraft, to what? 12 or so? The 4-enginge Douglases and
        the C-130’s that were summarily whacked
        Two are still flying for- Govn’t contracts- with TBM. And there is the matter of Aero Union’s P-3s which could be restored.. Yes there are other problems/factors but if you don’t have enough tools in the toolbox then you can’t move forward..Next Gen tankers are out there but things move slowly..


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