Nearly a record breaking year for acres burned in the U.S.

Wildfires consumed 9.7 million acres in the United States in 2017

total acres burned wildfires United States 1990-2017

It will probably not come as a surprise to many, but the number of acres burned in the United States in 2017 came close to breaking a record. The numbers are preliminary and could change over the next few weeks as the data is finalized but the acres burned in the 50 states, 9,781,062, was the second highest since reliable records have been kept. That is 49 percent higher than the average over the last 10 years. Even as the trend line for the acres burned has increased dramatically since 1990 the total number of fires has generally been slowly decreasing. In 2017, 66,131 fires were reported, which was 4 percent lower than the 10-year average.


number of wildfires United States 1990-2017

But to look at the big picture, at Wildfire Today we like to analyze the national trends without the stats from Alaska, and there are two reasons why. Fires in that huge state are managed far differently from the other 49 states. Most of them are not fully suppressed since they are less likely to endanger people or private property than in the lower 49 states. The second reason is that the fire occurrence is extremely variable, with the acres burned since 1990 ranging, for example, from 43,965 acres in 1995 to 6,645,978 in 2004. Including the Alaska numbers would skew the data for the other 49 states making it more difficult to spot trends.

In case you are wondering why our charts only go back as far as 1990, we are not convinced that the information before that is reliable. In the data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center there was a very sudden, long lasting major shift in the numbers beginning in the early 1980s.

The sloping horizontal lines in the charts represent the statistical linear trend.

average size acres wildfires United States 1990-2017

A statistic that is quite interesting is the average size. The linear trend line starts at about 22 acres in 1990 and reaches close to 100 acres by 2017. In fact, the average size in 2017 was 139 acres. There could be a number of reasons for this huge increase:

  • Weather that is warmer and drier making fires more difficult to suppress.
  • One hundred years of fire suppression has led to forests that are more dense and fires that burn with greater intensity.
  • A less aggressive strategy is being used on large fires more often for safety reasons.
  • More fires are allowed to burn naturally without full suppression for environmental concerns.
  • There may have been a change in the initial attack of new fires, responding with less equipment and personnel.

Another factor to consider is that there was a gradual 30 to 70 percent reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 2002 until 2014 when the fleet began to be partially restored.

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+

9 thoughts on “Nearly a record breaking year for acres burned in the U.S.”

  1. With all of the “managed” fires that occurred this year, this number is totally misleading, as are the numbers we see for money spent on suppression. There should be an OIG investigation on the decisions line officers are making on many of these “managed” fires that wind up lasting months, costing 10’s of millions, and needlessly raising the exposure of hundreds of firefighters. As an old FMO told me a couple years ago, this is just the lazy way of doing fuels management, and that if managers really cared about restoring the ecosystem they would take the time and steps necessary to do it under optimal conditions to have the best chance at getting the desired results.

    1. Agree 100% Big Boxing Fires isn’t cheap and it shouldn’t be done on every fire, there is a time n place for these Big Box Fires , But this year It seemed like ALLOT if not to many of these fire’s went “Managed”
      The Fire agencies need to get back and start FIGHTING FIRE again……

  2. With all these massive fires coming we should be using preventative measures like control burns to help lower these index scales used to measure total destruction. We should have scales also showing preventative measures. Why isn’t there ANY?

  3. Not sure why the fire acreage data starts at 1990. Looking at the data on the National Interagency Fire Center web site it is interesting to see that in the dust bowl period 1929 – 1936 we were burning 40 to over 50 million acres a year. We will probably burn some where around 10 million acres this year. While bad it is not any where near to ” record breaking year”. Perhaps the author should do some real investigation prior to writing a story.

    1. John wrote:

      Perhaps the author should do some real investigation prior to writing a story.

      Perhaps a person should ask prior to insulting the author, and/or read the entire article.

      Apparently you missed the explanation in the story:

      In case you are wondering why our charts only go back as far as 1990, we are not convinced that the information before that is reliable. In the data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center there was a very sudden, long lasting major shift in the numbers beginning in the early 1980s.

      And going back decades before that, the methods and practices used, and how consistently they were applied, casts doubt on the data in the early part of the last century. I am not convinced that in 1980 and going back before that, the data is accurate enough to show a reliable trend.

      https://wildfiretoday.com/2009/02/13/comments-we-love-comments-but-here-are-the-rules/

      1. Perhaps you should present all the data and let the readers decide. Do you think it was off by a factor of 5? I am convinced that if they estimated over 50 million acres were burned , more than 10 million acres were burned. Our grand parents didn’t have satellites but they weren’t dumb, how about giving them some credit. If you have no confidence in previous data then why not title article most acres in 26 years?

  4. Does this mean the sky is falling and we need bigger fire control budgets, or can we get a couple of economist to take a look at what’s happening? Maybe they could help us find a “use it or lose it” way for forest management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *