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”

August Fire grows to over one million acres

Gigafire in Northern California

Map of the August Complex of fires
Map of the August Complex of fires in Northern California, October 6, 2020.

On August 16 a weather pattern that does not occur often began working its way slowly through northern California. During the next three days about 2,500 lightning strikes were recorded that started over 600 fires, creating what became the Siege of ’20. The lightning was a result of moist unstable air from Tropical Storm Fausto colliding with a high pressure ridge during a heat wave. Many of the thunderstorm cells produced little or no rain that reached the ground. The lightning ignited dry fuels causing fires that spread rapidly, quickly overwhelming the suppression capability of local, state, and federal fire organizations. Some fires were not staffed at all for days, and for weeks most incidents struggled, with fewer resources than they needed.

The August Complex of fires is the result of 37 blazes that started on August 17 and eventually burned together on the Mendocino National Forest. It has now blackened 1,004,373 acres becoming a gigafire, the largest fire in the recorded history of California, by far. The scope of the fire is almost difficult to comprehend — approximately 72 miles by 32 miles. It is larger than Rhode Island which is 988,832 acres.

Resources assigned include 65 hand crews, 353 fire engines, and 31 helicopters for a total of 4,075 personnel. About 100 residences and 104 other structures have been destroyed . The estimated costs to date are $166 million.

The fire is divided into two zones with individual areas managed by four Type 1 Incident Management Teams overseen by an Area Command Team.

Largest fires, California, October 6, 2020
Largest fires in the recorded history of California as of October 6, 2020. The number of structures includes all types of structures, from small sheds to large commercial buildings.
August Complex fire
A firefighter bucks a log near Van Duzen Road on the Northwest Zone of the August Complex. Credit: Jacob Welsh

Our take on the largest fires list

The next three fires on the “Top 20 Largest California Wildfires” are all complexes, comprised of multiple separate fires that were arbitrarily clumped together on paper and called a complex. If they are listed at all on a Top 20 list, they should at least have an asterisk indicating each complex is actually multiple fires. If they burn together they should be treated as one fire. Geographically separate fires should be listed independently.

Six bushfires merge in Australia to burn 1.5 million acres

gigafire australia victoria new south wales
Six bushfires in two Australian states have merged, forming a huge megafire covering 1,532,484 acres (632,315 hectares). To get an idea of the scale, the distance between Canberra and Albury is 134 miles (216 km).  Map: NSW RFS

Six bushfires in two Australian states have merged, forming a huge blaze covering 1,532,484 acres (632,315 hectares) slightly smaller than the size of Delaware in the United States. The fires in Victoria and New South Wales met near Jingellic NSW between Canberra and Albury.

NAME            HECTARES
Dunns Road, 316,754
Doubtful Gap Trail, 48,918
Adaminaby Complex, 28,640
Green Valley, Talmalmo, 233,390
Mount Youngal, 1,000
Pilot Lookout, 3,613

TOTAL: 632,315 hectares (1,532,484 acres)

Below is an excerpt from an article at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation updated Friday night local time:

Firefighters are bracing for a difficult night ahead amid the formation of a second “mega-blaze” and a southerly change sweeping up the New South Wales coast, bringing gusts of up to 90 kilometres per hour.

Emergency warnings were issued earlier for the Dunns Road fire burning near Ellerslie and Tarcutta in the Snowy Valleys, as well as the Green Valley Talmalmo fire and the adjoining East Ournie Creek fire, burning east of Albury.

All three fires have now joined to form the state’s second “mega-blaze” and now covers more than 640,000 hectares, straddling the New South Wales and Victorian borders.

However, these blazes had all been downgraded to watch and act overnight. In total, four fires were at watch and act level last night, including the Erskine Creek blaze burning south of Leura and Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains.

NSW Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd said warnings for the blaze had been upgraded in anticipation of the southerly hitting the area around midnight and he warned residents to monitor conditions as the front moved through.

In a Facebook post, Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill told locals it had been a “hard day” for the region ahead of a “night of vigilance for us all”.

“We were worried it would be a hard day. That has been the case,” he wrote.

“We have had fire activity in the Grose Valley a few kilometres from Faulconbridge. This was air-attacked throughout the afternoon. Work will continue tomorrow.

“Crews are working hard to manage this activity. They will have a long night … I am sorry the news is not better but tonight is a night of vigilance for us all.”

NASA has released an animation showing smoke from the Australian fires reaching across the Pacific to South America.

NASA’s description of the video:

“The animation shows RGB color images from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite for December 31, 2019 through January 5, 2020. A plume of brown smoke extends from the southeastern coast of Australia, over the Tasman Sea and beyond into the Pacific Ocean.

“The overlaid vertical cross sections show CALIPSO lidar observations for these same days. The bright colors indicate the presence of small particles (aerosols) and the white color indicates clouds. Visible in each of the cross sections near 40 degrees south is a thick layer of smoke from the fires at altitudes above 9 miles (14.5 km). The dark shading below these layers is due to the absence of lidar signals below the opaque smoke layers. These layers contain very small particles and have optical properties similar to smoke.

“The sequence of CALIPSO and MODIS tracks in the animation indicates the continued transport of the smoke layer to the east. As of Jan. 5, 2020, smoke was detected more than 4,000 miles from the source.

“Credit: NASA Langley/Roman Kowch”

Chuckegg Creek Fire in Alberta grows to over half a million acres

Will it become a million-acre “gigafire”?

Map Chuckegg Creek Fire Northern Alberta
Map of the Chuckegg Creek Fire in Northern Alberta at 3:50 a.m. MDT May 30, 2019. The shaded areas represent heat detected by a satellite during the previous seven days.

The Chuckegg Creek Fire in Northern Alberta near the town of High Level was very active over the last 48 hours while being pushed by strong winds. Exhibiting extreme fire behavior, it grew to the south about 11 miles, and while moving 12 miles to the east it crossed Highway 35 and jumped the Peace River both north and south of the ferry crossing on Highway 697.

Alberta Wildfire estimated it has burned 230,000 hectares, or 568,000 acres.

Below is an excerpt from an update by Alberta Wildfire about the Chuckegg Creek Fire, issued May 30, 2019:

The Chuckegg Creek Fire experienced extreme fire behaviour yesterday with significant growth to the south towards Paddle Prairie, across Highway 35 by Highway 697 and spotted across the Peace River. Continued hot and dry conditions along with variable, gusty winds have proved a challenge to firefighting efforts and safety. Municipal firefighters and heavy equipment responded, with structure protection established as possible to the south of the fire. The fire also experienced growth to the west and continued fire activity on the north part of the fire around Watt Mountain.

Firefighters, heavy equipment, and aircraft are assessing the situation given the recent fire growth and will focus on priority areas. Structural protection and municipal firefighters are working to protect values. The weather forecast today anticipates cooler temperatures and higher minimum relative humidity, though winds today are expected to remain gusty and are expected to come primarily from the north.

I believe that the fire started during the week of May 12. It reached the 100,000-acre threshold to become a “megafire” on May 20. Now that it has easily grown to 568,000 acres, I wonder if it will reach a million acres to become a “gigafire”. A bushfire that started October 11, 2018 in Western Australia 120km southeast of Broome burned 880,000 hectares, or 2,174,527 acres.

The weather for the next seven days at the fire’s location will be variable, with a chance of rain on Saturday, Monday, and Thursday of next week, so there will not be many days conducive to explosive fire growth.

Bushfire in Australia burns over 2 million acres, becoming a “gigafire”

Bushfire Broome, Western Australia
Bushfire south of Broome, Western Australia. Photo: Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

A bushfire that started October 11 in Western Australia 120km southeast of Broome burned 880,000 hectares, or 2,174,527 acres. Dry winds from variable directions and high temperatures made it very difficult to suppress. The remote location and a lack of water restricted the tactics to fighting fire with fire, constructing firelines with heavy equipment, and using aircraft.

When the wind direction changed last week, firefighters had to shut down the Great Northern Highway, National Route 1.

bushfire Western Australia
Satellite photo of bushfire in Western Australia, October 15, 2018. NASA.

When we coined the term “megafire” for wildfires that exceed 100,000 acres, it was in the back of our mind that if a fire reached 1 million acres it would be called a “gigafire”.

In spite of the enormous size of the blaze in Western Australia there were no fatalities or damage to major structures.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) urged residents at Thangoo Homestead, Barn Hill Station, and Eco Beach last Tuesday to evacuate or actively defend their property.

DFES West Kimberley area officer Ben Muller said there were approximately 100 personnel fighting the fire.

The city of Broome was given the all clear Thursday morning.

Below is an excerpt from an article at TheWest.com:

Thangoo Station manager Rex McCormack said about half of the pastoral station was burnt but people and livestock were unscathed and water tanks and other important assets were undamaged.

“It is one of the biggest fires I remember from the last 10 years, but we felt safe in staying and defending the property,” he said.

“I didn’t feel scared in staying, I would have been more worried about that damage that could have occurred if I wasn’t there and it was more about being a resource to DFES.

“We were out back burning the property until about 1am last Wednesday, then up again at 6am.

Bushfire Broome, Western Australia
Bushfire south of Broome, Western Australia. Photo: Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

(UPDATED November 2, 2018)

Firefighters use innovative tactic to suppress Martin Fire

The fire has burned approximately 425,000 acres in Northern Nevada

(Originally published at 9:07 a.m. MDT July 10, 2018)

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.)

According to the National Situation Report there are only 634 personnel assigned. That is extremely low density of firefighters for such a huge fire — it stretches for 56 miles, west to east. Let’s assume for a moment that the perimeter is 150 miles (it is probably more). If so, that is about three people per mile of fireline, not including support personnel. However with mostly light fuels, there is less mop up after the spread is stopped, requiring fewer personnel.

map martin fire
The perimeter of the Martin Fire at 8:49 p.m. MDT July 10, 2018. The yellow line was from the previous day.

With the long distances, limited numbers of firefighters, and what may be difficult access, firefighters on the Martin Fire say they have developed an innovative approach to containing the blaze.

Firefighters know that air tankers and helicopters dropping water or retardant do not put out fires. Under ideal conditions they can slow them down enough to allow ground-based firefighters the opportunity to move in and actually put out the fire in that area. If there is no ground support working with the aircraft, the chances of success are very low. Reading between the lines of an update about the fire (embedded farther down) it appears that firefighters realized that in some instances the fire was spreading beyond retardant drops. It is not clear if the fire burned through the retardant, spotted over, or burned around the retardant.

martin fire retardant lines
Photo uploaded to InciWeb July 8, titled: “Martin Fire Crossing Retardant Lines”.

The tactic they decided to deploy involved using a combination of water-scooping air tankers, retardant-dropping air tankers, and firefighters building line on the ground. Aircraft that drop water, helicopters or fixed wing, apply it directly to the flaming front, since dropping it out ahead of the fire is often not effective since it does not adhere to the vegetation or have a long-term effect like retardant.

Here is how they described what they did:

Crews and equipment are making excellent progress building containment lines along the southeast flank of the fire. Due to the heavy, fine fuel loads, high winds and extremely fast fire rates of spread, an innovative tactic has been developed to combat these conditions using a three-prong attack. First, a long line of water is laid down by super scoopers, immediately followed by a retardant drop from air tankers. The approaching fire is thus cooled sufficiently that dozers and crews can safely and immediately dig a containment line right up against the side of the retardant line facing away from the flame front. Very close timing and coordination of air drops of water and retardant with ground forces has been proven to be the most effective tactic in these volatile burning conditions.

The part that may be innovative is slowing the flaming front with scooping air tankers AND then putting retardant just outside the edge of the fire. And as usual, quick followup by ground forces is essential.

Here are links to videos shot on the Martin Fire of drops by a DC-10 and two water scoopers.

Is it interesting that these firefighters, like many others in Canada and Europe, know that water-scooping air tankers are a very important tool in the toolbox. However, this year the U.S. Forest Service decided not to have any of them on exclusive use contract. The ones being used thankfully were available on a Call When Needed contract. And the number of retardant-dropping large air tankers on EU contracts were cut by one-third over last year.

They are also having success on the Martin Fire using a local task force:

Yesterday, fire spread slowed significantly due to the hard work of the local Elko Task Force that hit the head of the fire early Sunday morning and throughout the day. The task force took advantage of the fire naturally slowing as it entered flatter terrain with lesser fuel loads. Operations personnel report that the fire is moving into patches of greener vegetation such as Siberian wheat grass, which was planted as part of the BLM’s rehabilitation and fuel treatment efforts on previous fires. Green fuels slow the fire’s advance, making it easier for bulldozers and engines, with the aggressive assistance of super scooper air tankers and heavy and light helicopters, to catch up and get containment lines in place.

The head of the fire on the east side has approached and so far has not crossed the major drainage in the 3-D map below, thanks, no doubt, to the points brought out in the preceding quote.

map martin fire
A 3-D map showing the perimeter on the east side of the Martin Fire at 8:49 p.m. MDT July 10, 2018. The yellow line was from the previous day.

The Martin Fire is bringing in Beth Lund’s Type 1 Great Basin Management Team to handle the east side, while Taiga Rohrer’s Type 2 Great Basin Incident Management Team will continue to take care of the west side.