Where did the term “gigafire” originate

After the August Complex fire grew beyond 1 million acres news articles around the world yesterday referred to it as a “gigafire”. For an article they were working on, Harmeet Kaur a reporter for CNN contacted us yesterday.

I’m interested in the origin of the term “gigafire” and how it compares to “megafire.” From what I’ve been reading on your website, it seems that you may have coined the terms. Could you confirm whether that is the case?

I told the reporter that as far as I know, a person working for the U. S. Forest Service was one of the first to use “megafire” to describe a fire that burns 100,000 acres. But to my knowledge the first use of “gigafire” for a 1 million-acre fire occurred on Wildfire Today in 2017.

Below an article I wrote about the Elephant Hill Fire in British Columbia which at that time had burned 194,000 acres, I posted a comment asking our readers to suggest a term to describe 1,000,000-acre fires. “kevin9” wrote, “Gigafires, of course.” So he gets the credit for coining the term.

On July 10, 2018 we first used the word in an article on Wildfire Today when writing about the 425,000-acre Martin Fire in Northern Nevada.

When a wildfire reaches 100,000 acres we often refer to it as a “megafire”. But what name do we put on a fire when it is four times the megafire threshold? The incident management team on the Martin Fire in Northern Nevada estimates their fire has burned approximately 425,000 acres. (I think we should reserve “gigafire” for a 1 million-acre fire.)

The next time we used the word was October 26, 2018 in an article with the headline, Bushfire in Australia burns over 2 million acres, becoming a “gigafire”. Following that, it showed up in more articles — Chuckegg Creek Fire in Alberta, six bushfires in Australia that merged, and most recently, the August Complex fire in California.

We are aware of one gigafire that has occurred in the United States within the last few decades.

The fires in the greater Yellowstone area in 1988 burned a total of 1.6 million acres. The largest was the result of five fires burning together totaling 1,200,453 acres: North Fork, Clover Mist, Fan, Hellroaring, and Storm Creek.

The seven fires that comprised the Taylor Complex of fires in Alaska in 2004 totaled 1,303,358 acres, with the largest being the Billy Creek Fire at 463,994 acres.

Fire managers sometime arbitrarily draw a line on a map around multiple separate fires and call the group a “complex” in order to simplify the organization and paperwork, but they are still multiple fires. On a largest-fires list, complexes treated as one fire should not be welcome, but fires that burn together should be allowed.

Origin of the term "gigafire"
Origin of the term “gigafire”

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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.

11 thoughts on “Where did the term “gigafire” originate”

  1. Bill, thanks for the link to “Fires in the greater Yellowstone area”. It was especially interesting to me. I was the FBAN on the Hellroaring fire for 29 days. It was 150 acres when our fire team arrived on August 16th and contained at 81,000 acres on September 13 when we went back home. It had snowed lightly on and off all day on September 11.

    I don’t know if it’s true or not but I heard that before this, the forest had not had a large fire for many years and the largest fire ever recorded on the Gallatin NF was 800 acres.

  2. So I don’t know if it really matters much, but these terms “mega” and “giga” are being used incorrectly, at least compared to the accepted scientific use of these terms. The prefix “mega” means “million” and the prefix “giga” means “billion”. For example, see this wikipedia article:
    or this NIST page:
    So a fire greater than 1 million acres would more correctly be called a “megafire”. I am not aware of a scientific term for 100,000. Unfortunately, someone at some time in the past incorrectly termed a fire over 100,000 acres as a “megafire” and now we seem to be stuck with it.

  3. Kevin says a Terafire should be 1,000,000,000 acres, but going by the actual meaning of mega/giga/tera, they should be:
    mega = 1,000,000
    giga = 1,000,000,000
    tera = 1,000,000,000,000
    California = 102,000,000 acres
    US = 2,430,000,000 acres
    earth = 126,000,000,000 acres (126 gigaacres)
    But… going the way you have with a megafire being 100,000 acres and a gigafire being 1,000,000 acres, then a terafire might as well be 10,000,000 acres. It seems very unlikely we will ever have a fire that size considering natural fire breaks (lakes, oceans, rocks, sand, etc) and fire breaks from previous year’s fires, but who knows?

    1. “. . . fire breaks from previous year’s fires . . . ”

      I’m not sure exactly what is meant here, but if it means THE previous year’s fires, that might be true, but what ARE the DATA on post burn areas being “natural fire breaks?”

    2. Yay. Somebody knows math and the metric system. There is no word for 100,000 so maybe “deci-mega” (1/10 of a million) or “centu-kilo” (100 x 1,ooo). Maybe someday Americans outside science or military jobs will learn metric. My son fooled his high school math class, “Better study milli-feet, it will be on the test.”

      1. For those that have too much work to get it done each week. You can change your work schedule to the metric week. Ten hours per day, ten days per week.


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