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

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. Google+

2 thoughts on “Measuring the severity of a fire season”

  1. That’s the great thing about statistics they can be skewed or interpreted anyways the presenter wants. In a highly variable occupation like fire fighting look at all of the factors… Fuel type, wind, RH, drought, temperature, location, resources on it (or available), priority, difficulty of control (based on fuel type), access, heavy equipment or not, yada yada yada…. I am highly skeptical that any sort of a statistical anysis that tries to compare apples to oranges. But that’s just me 🙂

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