2023 Fire season: smallest number of acres in 25 years

Noxious smoke, zombie fires and the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history.

Wildfires made headlines numerous times throughout 2023, with the Lahaina wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui taking center stage in national media for months. For thousands of residents, recovery is still ongoing, with no end in sight.

Despite that, the year’s wildfire season was one of the quietest in decades. The National Interagency Fire Center estimated that 54,273 wildfires burned about 2.6 million acres. That’s the lowest yearly U.S. acreage burned by wildfire since 1998, when 81,043 wildfires burned 1.3 million acres.

The year is a relief for the wildland firefighters who are coming off  multiple high-burn years in a row, with 2015, 2017, and 2020 each  exceeding 10 million acres burned. The last time wildfires burned under 4 million acres was a decade ago when 63,312 fires in 2014 burned 3.6 million acres.

The reason for the low burn acreage could be attributed partly to 2023’s wet West. While the Eastern U.S. often has more wildfires, Western states see more acreage burned during the season. Thanks to above-average —  and some record-breaking — snowfall in states including California, Arizona, and Nevada, wildfires couldn’t find a foothold.


“Nine atmospheric rivers over a three-week period fueled the record-breaking snowfall,”  according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “The snow brought much-needed relief to the drought-stricken West, with the exception of the Pacific Northwest, where rapid snowmelt and early melt contributed to moderate drought conditions in late spring.”

While the U.S. saw relief, its northern neighbor dealt with a nightmare. Canada burned a record-breaking 18 million hectares (more than 44 million acres, roughly the size of North Dakota) during its 2023 fire season. The total blows the nation’s previous most-burned year out of the water, according to the Canadian National Fire Database. The country’s previous record year was 1980, when nearly 8 million hectares burned.

In contrast to the Western U.S. record-setting snowfall, much of Canada’s forests experienced drought and high temperatures heading into its wildfire season, Canada’s Drought Monitor shows. Severe drought was seen throughout the year, while extreme drought was seen in every month after April.

Canadian fire years
Canadian fire years

As the world kicks off 2024, wildland firefighters across the West are hoping for another record-setting snowfall.