California and Oregon fires — lives lost and structures burned

Elkhorn Fire
Elkhorn Fire. Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California. September 3, 2020. Sanford Ridge Off of Winter Trail in Wilderness Area. Photo by Mike McMillan.

Lives lost

The tally of the number of lives lost in the California and Oregon blazes will undoubtedly climb as teams search through the footprints of residences. It took weeks in 2018 to document every fatality at the Camp Fire at Paradise, California. Here are the numbers collected so far by the San Francisco Chronicle:

  • 19, at least — California
  • 10, at least — Oregon

Structures destroyed

It is difficult to get good consistent numbers about structures that have burned. CAL FIRE usually includes damaged buildings as well as those that have been destroyed. The Incident Status Summary, ICS-209, that incident management teams on a fire submit every day asks for the number that were destroyed. And it is likely that many teams on fires have not had the time to count all of the affected structures.

Here are the numbers of destroyed structures from the September 14, 2020 National Incident Management Situation Report compiled at the National Interagency Coordination Center, broken down by Geographic Areas. It uses data from the ICS-209:

  •  4,258 — California
  • 2,077 –Northwest (Washington & Oregon)
  • 168 — Northern Rockies
  • 46  — Great Basin
  • 64 — Rocky Mountain

Acres burned

The fire season is not over in all areas, but the number of acres burned to date has exceeded the 10-year average number burned in a year. But the figure varies greatly from year to year. 2019 had the least number since 2004, when considering only the states outside of Alaska.

5,887,136 — The total number of acres burned to date in the U.S., not counting Alaska

5,608,376 — 10-year annual average number of acres burned in the U.S., not counting Alaska

Acres burned annually in the U.S.
Acres burned annually in the U.S., 1985-2019, except Alaska.

There have been many large fires in the last one to two months in Arizona, California, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, but it has been quieter than usual in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

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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.

2 thoughts on “California and Oregon fires — lives lost and structures burned”

  1. It is a terrible tragedy. One wonders why in the world this has happened. Of course, the political discourse now is that it’s all about “climate change”. Politicians on the left and right and maybe a few in the middle will battle this out and play politics with it.

    I cannot prove that it is “climate change” nor prove that it is not but I just have to believe that climate change simply cannot be the complete explanation behind all these wildfires.

    In much of the Southwest there was a terrible multiyear drought following the new millennium. A lot of trees died but as bad as that drought was, it was not historically unprecedented.

    Here is what I believe might’ve happened: A nearly hundred year practice of total fire exclusion and bad logging practices resulted in a huge increase in tree stand density. Logging operations can tear up the forest floor resulting in an ideal seedbed for new seedlings to sprout – kind of like tilling your garden. Lots of seedlings grew into “doghair” thickets.

    In Arizona it’s been documented that ponderosa pine densities increased from around 26 trees/acre in 1883 to 291 trees/acre in 1995 (Denton et al. 2011). However, I have seen other reports (which I can’t find immediately) that indicated densities of over 800 trees per acre. That’s staggering.
    Although that happened in Arizona, it was much the same in other parts of the West. So, when the drought came there simply was not enough moisture to support a density like that. The lack of moisture didn’t kill the trees directly but weakened them to the point that they couldn’t fight of a mountain pine beetle attack.

    Then this summer, in California, a lot of those dead trees caught on fire. Note the picture at the top of this page. Some of those snags look like they might have already been dead before the fire raged through there.

    As for “global warming” there is an issue that no one is talking about. It’s the “heat island” effect of massive urbanization in the West. Average annual temperatures have risen four degrees in Tucson since 1894. So, any “global” warming that’s occurring is almost certainly being exacerbated by heat islands. There are probably also large heat islands around Fresno, Bakersfield and not to mention the L.A. basin. This could be heating up the whole area which means that snow packs melt earlier in the spring.

    Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions might just prove to be easier than addressing the heat island issue. One solution would be to plant a lot of trees and grass in urbanized areas. But then there’s the issue of finding the water to do that. There are probably no easy answers for this.

    Fred M. Cain,
    Topeka, IN

  2. So sorry for the loss of lives & people’s homes. Prayers for those who lost loved ones, those displaced & those fighting the fires.. God bless you all.


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