More acres burned on USFS lands this year since 1910, says agency Chief

Updated December 18, 2020   |    11:50 a.m. 

Elkhorn Fire
Elkhorn Fire. Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California. September 15, 2020. Photo by Mike McMillan.

The U.S. Forest Service announced this week that the number of acres burned on national forests in 2020 was the most since 1910.

Nationwide on lands of all ownership 181,234 acres have been reported burned this year in Alaska, and 10,069,213 in the other 49 states as of December 18. In looking at the records from 1985 to 2020 for the lower 49 states, that was the highest total.

The largest fire in 2020 was larger than a million acres and qualifying as “gigafire”, was the 1,032,648-acre August Complex in northern California.  While “complexes” are comprised of a group of fires, it is my understanding that the August Complex originated from numerous lightning-caused blazes which all burned together, merging to become one. In looking at national records since 1985, it burned more acres than all of the fires in the 49 states outside of Alaska in 2006.

Any lists comparing fires by size that includes complexes should be looked at with skepticism. Arbitrarily drawing a circle around several separate fires that have not merged, and calling them a complex, should not covert them to one fire for statistical purposes.

Having said that, the information below, showing “megafires” (that exceeded 100,000 acres), comes from InciWeb which primarily has data for fires on federal jurisdiction. Many states and local agencies rarely if ever enter data for their state responsibility fires at the site, so the list does not include some very large fires in California, Washington, and other areas.

These three fires in California were not entered in InciWeb:

  • Hennessey, 174,178 acres
  • LNU Lightning Complex, 363,218
  • Del Puerto, 390,647
largest wildfires 2020
Fires in 2020 listed on InciWeb that exceeded 100,000 acres in 2020. (Three fires in California are not shown: Hennessey, LNU Lightning Complex, and Del Puerto).

Total wildfire acres in the US, except Alaska

Here is how the USFS this week described the 2020 fire year:

The Forest Service was successful in prioritizing early suppression of wildfire ignitions while facing a record-breaking fire year, with the most acres burned on national forests since 1910. The agency’s modeling research on how COVID-19 may spread between firefighters or in communities during response efforts led to new interagency safety protocols to better support fire camp management.  The protocols not only successfully minimized the spread of COVID-19 among the agency’s 10,000 firefighters, but early learning suggests the safety measures resulted in additional health benefits to fire crews, reducing ailments common in fire camps, which translated to a healthier and more resilient firefighting workforce available to protect lives, homes, and communities threatened by wildfire.

In 2020, the Forest Service sold more than 3.2 billion board feet of timber, the second highest level in 20 years. The agency also improved forest conditions and reduced wildfire risk on over 2.65 million acres, removing hazardous fuels like dead and downed trees, and combating disease, insect and invasive species infestations.

California fires map
California fires that were active October 16, 2020

Average fire size in the US, except Alaska


How will the Forest Service change to deal with the “fire year”?

The USFS says we no longer have “fire seasons”. They are now “fire years”.

Victoria Christiansen forest service
Victoria Christiansen

In addition to asking the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, why the agency cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts by 35 percent, we also asked her what changes the agency is making now that they say longer “fire seasons” have become “fire years” due to climate change.

Question: Since the Forest Service is now using the term “Fire Year” rather than “Fire Season”, will a large number of seasonal firefighters be converted to work year round?

“An effective response to the more severe fire seasons we have experienced for the past few years requires strong cooperation between federal agencies, states and tribal organizations. No one organization can do it alone. With these strong partnerships, we are prepared for what we expect to be another active fire season.  The Forest Service, along with assistance and cooperation with our federal, tribal, state, and local partners and volunteers, is well prepared to respond to wildfires in 2018. This year, the agency has more than 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines, and hundreds of aircraft available to manage wildfires in cooperation with federal, tribal, state, local, and volunteer partners. At this time, there is no national direction to change seasonal tours.”

Question: How will the Forest Service change to deal with the “Fire Year” — the longer fire season?

“Early indicators are predicting that 2018 will be another active fire year. The USDA Forest Service is committed to ensuring adequate assets are available for a safe and effective wildfire response. In preparation for the existing and potential wildfire activity, preparations continue to ensure a robust workforce of firefighters, engines and aviators will be available for nationwide wildfire response throughout the fire year. Assets will continue to be moved around the nation as activity shifts from one geographical area to another throughout the fire year. We continue to do what we have for each and every season, and that is to prepare, plan for, and respond to wildfires throughout the fire year, while supporting our federal, state, local and tribal partners and cooperators.”

Question: On another topic, what are your thoughts about salvage logging after a fire vs. allowing nature to take its course in a burned area? Will we be seeing more salvage logging?

“Salvage logging of dead and dying timber after a fire or other disaster is one way to capture the value of the damaged timber. This timber provides much needed products to the American public. Salvaging the timber can also reduce the fuel loading after harvest creates “slash.”  Otherwise, over time, these trees could potentially fuel future fires.  The value of the trees harvested can be used to treat the burned area. This treatment may include various restoration projects, including planting trees, shrubs and grasses for wildlife and domestic grazing, and watershed restoration projects such as brush dams to reduce sediment flow.  In many instances, there is not a seed source left after an intensive burn to allow an area to return to desired vegetation state naturally. Planting allows an area to return to this desired vegetation state in a much shorter time.  Typically only about 20-30 % of the burned area is salvage logged, depending on the intensity of the burn.  The rest of the area may not be logged because of nearness to perennial streams, soil stability concerns, or that very few of the trees were damaged in the fire.  When evaluating the total burn area, the concern over a lack of snags becomes less problematic.  Unless forests are treated to reduce the number of stems and the resultant fuels, future fires will continue to create problems.

“In many of our market areas there is a need to maintain at least a portion of the green timber sale program as the mills are designed for certain tree species or certain products.  These mills cannot afford to reconfigure the mill for some of the products that come from salvage material. In addition some defects like blue stain in pines does effect the structural integrity of the product. However, many Americans do not like the looks of this defect. Fortunately, some of this lumber can be used in Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) where this feature is covered up.”