Data shows the worsening trend of California wildfires

Cumulative Acres Burned, 1979-2018, for all Fires in CaliforniaIt’s clear to most citizens of California that wildfires have become more intense over the last few years. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the Nature Conservancy have compiled a new dataset of damage caused by wildfires in California in areas protected by the state of California. (Some of the data does not include fires on lands protected by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and the BLM). The report illustrates how the recent set of severe fires fits into a broader trend of increasing burn area and damage over the past 40 years.

The report was written by: Hanna Buechi (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB), Dick Cameron (The Nature Conservancy), Sarah Heard (The Nature Conservancy), Andrew J. Plantinga (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB), and Paige Weber (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB).

The researchers studied data on fire perimeters and estimates of damages for each fire and used the information to calculate trends involving the number and timing of fires throughout the state by time of year. They also calculated the total area burned and specifically identified the amount of wildland urban-interface burned. These are areas where houses intermingle with wildland vegetation, and are of particular concern to those studying wildfire.

Andrew Plantinga
Andrew Plantinga. UCSB photo.

“The main finding is that the recent severe fires in California — including the Thomas fire in 2017 and the Camp fire in 2018 — are part of a trend in California over the past four decades,” said Andrew Plantinga, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “The trend is toward more wildfires that burn larger areas and cause more damage.”

The number of acres burned per year has not only been increasing, the report found, it is also accelerating. And this increase isn’t only during the season’s peak, from June through October. The state is also seeing a longer fire season, with more acres burned in late fall than in the past. And while greater burn areas don’t automatically translate to greater damages, the researchers found that these, too, have been on the rise.

“I expected the recent severe fires to be outliers, and they are,” said Plantinga, “but it’s also clear that they represent part of a trend toward larger and more damaging fires.”

Cumulative WUI Acres Burned in California, 1979 – 2018

The report is part of a larger effort to estimate the costs associated with a business-as-usual approach to development in California, when considering the potential impacts of climate change. The team had previously found that interventions on natural and working lands — like forests, farms and rangelands — can contribute 2.5 times the emissions reductions by 2050 as residential and commercial sectors combined.

What’s more, for every dollar spent on implementing land-use strategies, close to fifty cents would be recouped in economic benefits. And that’s without accounting for other positive impacts, the previous report states.

California Civilian and Firefighter Deaths
Civilian and Firefighter Deaths on wildfires in California that occurred on State Responsibility Area lands, 1979 – 2017.
California Estimated Value of Structure Losses
Estimated Value of Structure Losses (in 2018 dollars) for State Responsibility Area Fires, by Year, 1979 – 2018.

Acres Burned by Month and Decade for all Fires in California

California Map of Structure Losses and Fire Perimeters
Map of Structure Losses and Fire Perimeters for State Responsibility Area Fires, 1979 – 2018.

The cost per gallon of dropping retardant

We calculated the cost per gallon of delivering retardant on a wildfire for several different models of air tankers

MD-87 drops on the Round Peak Fire
An MD-87 drops on the Round Peak Fire east of Springville, Utah. Photo by Jocelyn Marie Cooley.

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation

On February 12 I wrote a lengthy article about exclusive use Next Generation 3.0 air tanker contracts, the Aerial Firefighting Use and Effectiveness study, air tanker availability since 2000, and the contracts that were awarded recently for Call When Needed (CWN) large and very large air tankers.

The next day I added some calculated data to that article about the cost per delivered gallon from the CWN air tankers. In an effort to ensure this additional information does not get lost, I am including it again here.

Keep in mind the costs only apply to CWN air tankers which can be more than 50 percent higher than an exclusive use air tanker that is guaranteed several months of work. The initial dollar figures supplied by the Forest Service are based on the contracts that were awarded in December, 2019.

The U.S. Forest Service refused to give us the actual daily and hourly costs that the government agreed to when issuing the new CWN contracts to the six companies, but did supply the chart below with estimates based on the contract costs. The data assume the tankers were activated 36 days a year, for 4 years, and flew 100  hours each year. The dollar figures also include the estimated fuel costs based on each aircraft’s fuel burn rate at a fuel price of $5.21 a gallon.

Call When Needed large air tanker contracts
The companies that were awarded Call When Needed large air tanker contracts in December, 2019. Data from the US Forest Service.

In comparing the dollar figures, note that the listed air tankers can carry up to 3,000 to 4,000 gallons in each load, except the DC-10 and 747 which can hold up to 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively.

With the very different capacities of the seven models of air tankers receiving the CWN contracts, using just the USFS data above it is difficult to analyze and compare the actual costs of applying retardant. I did some rough back-of-the-envelope cyphering assuming 3,500-gallon retardant capacities for all aircraft except the DC-10 and 747, and 9,400 and 19,200 gallons respectively for those two very large air tankers. Other assumptions were, 36 days availability a year for four years and one load per hour for a total of 400 hours. The approximate, ball park costs per gallon delivered by a Call When Needed air tanker that was awarded a USFS CWN contract in December, 2019, rounded to the nearest half-dollar and including fuel but not the costs of retardant, are:

Retardant Cost Delivered Gallon CWN

These dollar figures are very, very rough estimates. In some air tankers the amount of retardant carried varies with density altitude and the amount of fuel on board. The cost of retardant would add several dollars per gallon.

Call When Needed air tankers are usually much more expensive per day and hour than Exclusive Use Air Tankers which are guaranteed several months of work. CWN air tankers may never be activated, or could sit for long periods and only fly a small number of hours. Or, they may work for a month or two if the Forest Service feels they can pay for them out of a less restrictive account.

In 2017 the average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.

How the media covers fires

What can they do to improve?

Alissa Cordner

The video below about how the media covers fires features professors from Whitman College and Oregon State University.

They talk about the myth of how after a disaster there are often reports of widespread social upheaval and discontent, which may not be accurate. And the media, they said, tends to concentrate on the singular focus of damage and short term effects.

When a wildfire occurs, obviously what  you will see or read on the news will be the immediate effects, especially on populations near the fire. You will hear about homes burned, structures threatened, roads closed, people that have been injured or killed, and evacuations. And all that is appropriate as the incident develops.

The media also has a responsibility during the event to help spread information that can save lives. Too often we hear how government systems that are supposed to warn residents about an approaching fire have not been effective, were used improperly or not at all.

There may be examples of media outlets that exaggerate or hype the emergency to get ratings, but when covering fires most respected media organizations do their best to provide accurate information as quickly as possible. (Unlike the political reporting we see.) But we should keep in mind that breaking news may not be accurate news.

There are other aspects of fires that could be covered more throughly such as fire ecology, fire dependent ecosystems, “normal” fire return intervals, fuel management, prescribed fire, and the physical and mental health risk firefighters experience. Plus, of course, the five things that are the responsibility of homeowners and state and local governments to make structures and communities more resilient — so they can live with fire.

The media sometimes reports on the costs of suppressing a fire, but that is only about nine percent of the real long term cost, according to a study by Headwaters Economics. Those additional expenses may be missed by the casual observer or consumer of news.

Additional costs can include:

  • Short and long term landscape rehabilitation
  • Lost business and tax revenues
  • Home and property loss
  • Depreciated property values
  • Property, energy, and infrastructure repairs
  • Degraded ecosystem services
  • Aid relief and evacuation

Cost of 18 wildfires in Colorado this year reported to be about $130 million

Above: Spring Creek Fire southwest of Pueblo, Colorado. Photo uploaded to InciWeb June 29, 2018.

Reporters at a recently created newspaper in Colorado dug up a great deal of information about the cost of the large wildfires that occurred in Colorado this year. Jennifer Brown and Jason Blevins authored an article in The Colorado Sun that broke down many different categories of costs, from portable toilets to firefighting aircraft.

The data they collected came from the Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control. A federal agency has not responded to a records request the newspaper filed months ago.

The article concentrates on two of the largest fires in Colorado this year — Spring Creek  51 miles southwest of Pueblo, and Silver Creek near Kremmling.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

The drought-ravaged summer of 2018 was an expensive one for firefighting, with costs reaching an estimated $130 million for 18 fires, according to documents received by The Colorado Sun through a public records request to the state Division of Fire Protection and Control. Of that, the state’s share is more than $40 million.

That’s six times more than Colorado spent on fighting wildfires in 2017 and two and a half times what it spent in 2016. Ten fires last year cost just more than $10 million combined.

It is a very interesting well researched article –worth your time.

The Colorado Sun published their first edition on September 10. Many of the reporters came from the Denver Post and other newspapers that have had massive staff reductions in recent years. The Post, created in 1892, was purchased in 2010 by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, run by Heath Freeman under their Digital First Media umbrella. The organization has purchased 97 newspapers.

Below is an excerpt from an article published in Bloomberg March 26:

…But what sets Freeman apart is that he seems to have a rather unique view of a newspaper’s purpose. In this view, his papers are intended not so much to inform the public or hold officialdom to account, but to supply cash for Freeman to use elsewhere. His layoffs aren’t just painful. They are savage.

For instance, according to figures compiled by the NewsGuild, the union that represents workers at Digital First Media properties, the staff of the Denver Post has fallen from 184 journalists to 99 between 2012 and 2017.  The Pottstown Mercury in Pennsylvania went from 73 journalists in 2012 to 19 in 2017. That’s right: 19. The Norristown Times-Herald, also in Pennsylvania, shrank from 45 journalists to 12. The San Jose Mercury News and the Orange County Register, both of which had been dominant papers in their regions before Alden Global bought them, have also been decimated by layoffs.

[…]

But the pattern continues. Last week, no sooner had Digital First Media closed on its purchase of the Boston Herald than it announced that it would cut the staff from 240 employees to 175.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.