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

Wildfires consumed 9.7 million acres in the United States in 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.

Washington DNR requests a record $55 million budget

The agency wants to convert 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz unveiled on October 10 the largest budget request of its kind in state history: a $55 million Department of Natural Resources proposal for fighting wildfires and maintaining healthier forests in Washington.

The 2019-21 budget package, which already has bipartisan support from members of the Legislature’s Wildfire Caucus, would transform DNR’s firefighting strategy and reduce that hazards that unhealthy forests pose to Washington communities.

This year, DNR responded to about 1,700 wildfires – second only to the number of wildfire responses in 2009. Smoke from this year’s fires at times gave Washington the worst air quality in the world, and numerous fires forced families to evacuate their homes.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks about her budget request October 10, 2018 at the Department of Natural Resources helicopter maintenance hangar in Olympia, Washington.

“We need bold, forward-thinking investments to reduce wildfires. Inaction is not an option,” Franz said. “It’s time to come together to invest in strategies that keep wildfires small and our skies clear of smoke, and I look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to ensure we have the resources we need to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Wildfire fighting and prevention

The biennium budget request includes nearly $12 million to transform 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions. This would help retain seasoned firefighters at DNR and provide a staff to carry out critical forest health treatments, such as prescribed burning, during the offseason. The vast majority of DNR’s firefighting force is seasonal (only 43 firefighters work full time), prompting many firefighters to take their skills elsewhere.

“I love serving my community as a wildland firefighter,” said Tommy Matsuda, a seasonal firefighter at DNR. “But the part-time nature of the job makes it hard to sign up year after year. I would gladly stay on full time performing forest health work in the offseason if I was able.”

The agency’s firefighters would also receive more training to deal with increasingly complex wildfire seasons under the commissioner’s budget plan, to the tune of $2.2 million in the 2019-21 biennium. They would receive two additional helicopters – increasing their helicopter fleet to nine and helping them respond more rapidly to fires.

Additionally, more than $4.8 million would grow the firefighting force supplied by Washington’s prison system – from 300 to 380 workers – allowing incarcerated people to learn firefighting and forestry skills while reducing the state’s firefighting costs. The budget also would provide $100,000 to improve emergency communications and $234,200 to help assess landslide risk in areas affected by wildfire.

These requests support the commissioner’s Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan to make the fundamental changes necessary to stop and prevent uncharacteristically large wildfires.

“As a fire chief and incident management team member in a community impacted by wildfire, I know we need more resources on the ground,” Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Jack Cates said. “With more full-time firefighters and air resources, the Department of Natural Resources will be better able to assist us in protecting endangered communities like Spokane County.”

Franz made her announcement alongside state Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, as well as Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Chairman Rodney Cawston, Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave, and Matsuda.

“The facts are simple: When fire is running across the landscape, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15,000. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80,000 acres. It’s terrifying,” said LaFave, a member of the the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Council and the Washington Fire Chiefs Association. “We want to see these initiatives move forward. We want to see a different decision today, so there’s a different outcome tomorrow.”

Because people cause 90 percent of all wildfires, teaching the public about wildfire prevention is another key part of the commissioner’s budget.

It would invest nearly $2 million in the creation of seven public-outreach specialists scattered across the state, and it includes $4.2 million for DNR’s Landowner Assistance Program. This program helps private forestland owners reduce the wildfire threat on their lands.

Restoring resilient, healthy forests

To get at the core of the problem, Franz’s budget request includes more than $5.7 million to speed up forest health restoration by creating a division solely committed to forest health. The proposal also asks for $17.7 million in capital budget funds to treat more than 32,000 acres of state, federal and private forests in targeted, high-risk areas.

And more than $724,000 in the proposal would dedicate two employees to manage the federal contracts, finances, and grants necessary to carrying out restoration treatments on federal lands. DNR and the U.S. Forest Service work together through the Good Neighbor Authority agreement to work toward their forest health goals.

“Wildfire doesn’t respect property boundaries,” Cawston said. “By increasing resources for our state’s wildland firefighters, we decrease the risk that wildfires pose to tribal communities and private property owners. This is a win-win for Washington.”

After one month the Ranch Fire has burned over 400,000 acres

It is one of four megafires currently burning in the U.S., all larger than 100,000 acres

(Originally published at 9:32 a.m. PDT August 27, 2018)

The Ranch Fire started east of Ukiah, California a month ago on July 27, 2018. About two weeks later it broke the previous record for the largest in California’s recorded history, the 281,893 acres attributed to last December’s Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara. Today CAL FIRE said the Ranch Fire has grown to 402,468 acres, exceeding by 120,575 acres the record set only eight months earlier. The other fire in the Complex is the 49,920-acre River Fire which has not spread for a couple of weeks.

Mendocino Complex fire Ranch California map
The red line on the map was the perimeter of the Ranch Fire at 9:15 p.m. PDT August 26, 2016. The white line was the perimeter on August 14. The red and yellow dots represent heat detected by a satellite in the 24 hour period ending at 2:31 a.m. PDT August 27, 2018. Click to enlarge.

Firefighters are making progress on the Ranch Fire after having backed off on the north and northeast sides to ignite backfires from dirt roads and dozer lines on ridge tops in the Mendocino National Forest. The rest of the fire is looking pretty good, so if this tactic is successful and the weather cooperates it would be a big step toward stopping the spread.

(To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Mendocino Complex of Fires, including the most recent, click HERE.)

A couple of decades ago it was rare for a fire outside of Alaska to exceed the threshold to become what we call a megafire, 100,000 acres. Now we seem to have multiple megafires each year. Presently there are three others that are presently active in the lower 48 states:

  1. Carr, in Northern California: 229,651 acres
  2. South Sugarloaf, in northern Nevada: 200,692 acres
  3. Spring Creek, in southern Colorado: 108,085 acres

Fire seasons are longer. The U.S. Forest Service has abandoned the term, preferring “fire year” instead. The Thomas Fire broke the previous record in December. DECEMBER! Megafires are not supposed to occur in the dead of winter.

Not only do the fires burn vegetation, destroy homes, change the landscape, require evacuations, disrupt lives, and cause massive air pollution problems, they also kill. Just on the megafires in California this year eight people have died, four firefighters, a power company employee, and three other civilians.


The article was revised to correct the number of fatalities on the two megafires in California this year.

Brush fire burns in Santa Ana Mountains of Southern California

The Holy Fire is in Holy Jim Canyon in Orange County 6 miles northwest of Lake Elsinore, California

Above: the view from the Nevada Seismological Laboratory camera on Santiago Peak looking southeast at 6:52 p.m. PDT August 6, 2018.

(UPDATED at 6:44 a.m. PDT August 7, 2018)

Late Monday night the U.S. Forest Service estimated that the Holy Fire in the Cleveland National Forest east of Rancho Santa Margarita, California had burned approximately 4,000 acres, but that figure could change with more accurate mapping.

The fire started in Trabuco Canyon east of Holy Jim Canyon and rapidly ran up the very steep slopes to the North Main Divide Road at the top of the ridge. The latest rough mapping by the incident management team indicates that very little of the fire has crossed the road which is primarily on the top of the ridge. But better mapping in daylight will provide better information. That road is also near the boundary between Orange and Riverside Counties, and so far most of the blaze is in Orange County.

(To see all articles about the Holy Fire on Wildfire Today, including the most recent, click HERE.)

3-D map Holy Fire August 6 2018
3-D map, looking east, showing the approximate location of the Holy Fire Monday night August 6, 2018. Click to enlarge.

(Originally published at 7:27 p.m. PDT August 6, 2018)

A brush fire in Trabuco Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California has burned at least two cabins. The  blaze started around 1:30 p.m. Monday near the intersection of Holy Jim Canyon Road and Trabuco Creek Road. In mid-afternoon fire officials estimated it had burned about 1,200 acres.

Holy Fire
Holy Fire at 5:11 p.m. PDT August 6, 2017. Screen grab from ABC7 video.

It is spreading up very steep slopes in the canyons on the west side of the Santa Ana Mountains, running up to the North Main Divide Road, an elevation change of about 2,600 feet. A Los Angeles TV station, ABC7, has had intermittent live video from a helicopter showing fairly intense fire behavior, with frequent fire whirls on the flaming front.

The fire is two miles east of the community of Trabuco Canyon, three miles southeast of Temescal Valley, and six miles northwest of Lake Elsinore.

map Holy Fire
Map showing the approximate location of the Holy Fire at 2:11 p.m. PDT August 6, 2018, based on heat detected by a satellite.

Continue reading “Brush fire burns in Santa Ana Mountains of Southern California”

Southern California firefighters being tested by record heat and windy conditions

On Saturday there is a slight chance of isolated dry lightning strikes across the eastern San Gabriel Mountains during Red Flag Warning conditions

Above: Photo taken from the back yard of the USFS District Office in Alpine, CA during the West Fire July 6, 2018. USFS photo.

(Originally published at 9:20 a.m. PDT July 7, 2018)

The predictions for record heat in Southern California were accurate Friday as high temperatures soared into the triple digits. In downtown Los Angeles the old record for the date was broken by 10:15 a.m. when it hit the previous mark set in 1992 of 94 degrees. By the end of the day it was 108. The temperature at UCLA reached 111 degrees, the hottest temperature ever recorded there.

Other record-setting daily temperatures Friday in Southern California:

  • 117 – Van Nuys Airport
  • 114 – Burbank Airport
  • 115 – Ramona
  • 118 – Riverside

Firefighters were challenged by not only the heat but dry winds as fires broke out in several areas.

As the temperature reached 109 degrees, U.S. Forest Service firefighters on the Cleveland National Forest found themselves in a structure defense mode at their District Office in Alpine, with the West Fire adjacent to the building’s back yard and the rest of the 400-acre blaze across the street. Live footage shot by a local TV station showed numerous structures were destroyed.

forest service district office fire
Photo taken from the front yard of the USFS District Office in Alpine, CA during the West Fire. USFS photo.

On the Santa Barbara coast sundowner winds pushed the Holiday Fire through the hills above Goleta, burning 10 to 20 homes according to fire authorities. Even into the night temperatures at the fire scene remained above 100 degrees.

holiday fire goleta
At the Holiday Fire, Santa Barbara County Fire Department firefighters apply water at a home off Fairview Avenue in Goleta. SBFD photo.

The Valley Fire that started Friday has burned at least 1,000 acres near Highway 38 on the San Bernardino National Forest. At last report it was headed into the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area. Mandatory evacuation are in effect for the Forest Falls Community east of the highway. Southern California Incident Management Team 2 will be assuming command.

Much of Southern California is again under a Red Flag Warning Saturday as the huge high pressure dome lingers over the area, bringing more of the same very high temperatures, 2 to 8 percent relative humidities, and gusty winds.

And just to make the situation more interesting, there is a slight chance of isolated dry lightning strikes across the eastern San Gabriel Mountains along with thunderstorm-driven winds.

map Red Flag Warnings, July 7, 2018
Red Flag Warnings, July 7, 2018.

Repercussions of a government prescribed fire that escapes and burns private property

In 2010 a prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest escaped and burned approximately 450 acres of private property.

Davis Fire, Aug. 26, 2010
Davis 5 Fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

On August 26 and 27, 2010 the Davis 5 prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest in Montana escaped control 28 miles northwest of Helena. It happened on a windy day during Fire Weather Watch conditions when the temperature in Helena set a record for the highest ever recorded on that date .

(Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Davis 5 prescribed fire”)

The project that was expected to treat 100 acres eventually burned about 1,600 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and approximately 450 acres of private property.

Today the Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian published an article written by Tim Kuglin that retells the story of the Davis 5 Fire. Mr. Kuglin concentrated on the effects on the private landowners and their battles, largely unsuccessful, to obtain reparations from the federal government.

The post-fire report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, as is the custom with federal land management reports about fires that have bad outcomes, did not outline many significant issues or bad decisions that led to the escape.

Davis fire
Firemen line the Stemple Pass Road August 26, 2010, on the Davis Fire. Dylan Brown photo.

Most of Kent Taylor’s 146 acres burned in the fire. After being rebuffed by the USFS he went to court to seek payment for damages. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell decided on March 22, 2015 that the U.S. is immune from the suit, writing in his decision:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service was negligent either in conducting the Davis 5 Unit prescribed burn or in fighting the escaped fire once it occurred or that the Forest Service violated any mandatory policy or prescription. In addition, and more significantly, strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies to bar Plaintiff’s tort claims.

The court decision, the official USFS report, and the recent newspaper article did not seriously consider two issues that we mentioned in 2010:

1. The first was the failure to take notice of the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday on the day of the burn, just before the firefighters ignited the test burn. That forecast predicted stronger winds than in the forecast that was issued the previous day which was for “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”. Here is what Wednesday morning’s forecast predicted for the day of ignition (the all-caps are from the weather forecast):

WIND (20 FT)……..SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH WITH AFTERNOON GUSTS 20 TO 25 MPH.
RIDGE TOP WIND……WEST AT 15 TO 20 MPH.

The report says:

The prescribed fire personnel stated they did not note any differences between the two forecasts.

That forecast also stated that on the following day, Thursday, the winds in the afternoon would be 30 to 35 mph.  The maximum wind speed allowed in the prescription for the project was 15 mph, which, from my experience, is quite high for a prescribed fire.

2. The second issue is the fact that they knew on Tuesday, the day before the burn began on Wednesday, that near record heat and a Fire Weather Watch with gusty southwest winds was forecast for Thursday. This Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning on Wednesday afternoon after ignition had begun. Even in a best case scenario, if there had been no spot fires or other control problems on Wednesday, the 30 to 35 mph winds predicted for the day after ignition should have alerted experienced fire management personnel that the winds across the 100-acre prescribed fire could have caused embers to be blown across the lines, resulting in the fire escaping. Control would have been difficult in 30 to 35 mph winds.