New normal: more megafires

100000+ acre fires

(Click the image above to see a larger version.)

(Revised at 3:30 p.m. MDT, May 6, 2015)

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee distributed this very interesting graphic on May 5 showing an “exponential” increase in the number of fires larger than 100,000 acres — what we call megafires. At first glance it appears to indicate that between 1983 and 1996 there were one or fewer megafires per year, but in the last 10 years there have been more than 30 each year. This interpretation is reinforced by the text on the left, “Number of wildfires, larger than 100,000 acres in size that burned each year“. (Emphasis, mine.)

However, if you click on the graphic to see a larger version, you may notice that the years across the bottom are in groups of three. So the number of megafires are for three year periods, not individual years.

We checked with Jennifer Jones, spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service, who confirmed the following data for the previous 10 years found in the annual fire reports issued by the National Interagency Fire Center:

Fires larger than 100,000 acres (megafires)
2005 – 10
2006 – 15
2007 – 13
2008 – 5
2009 – 12
2010 – 3
2011 – 14
2012 – 14
2013 – 8
2014 – 4

Even taking the misleading graphic into account, this is very sobering data. The term “growing exponentially” is not an over statement. Prior to 1995 there was an average of less than one megafire per year. Between 2005 and 2014 the average increased to 9.8 each year.

While the number of megafires has increased by a factor of almost 10, the number of wildland firefighters working for the five federal land management agencies has decreased by 17.5 percent in the last four years according to testimony by USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2015:

Federal wildland firefighters
2011 – 16,000
2015 – 13,200

If more megafires and fewer firefighters is the new normal, should the land management agencies and landowners continue doing what was more or less working 20 years ago, and expect the same results they had then? Or, have conditions changed to the point where there needs to be a new assessment, implementation, or paradigm shift in:

  • mechanical fuel management,
  • prescribed fire,
  • the number and types of firefighting resources available,
  • management of encroachment into the wildland-urban interface,
  • technology that can make firefighters more efficient and safe,
  • firewise practices used by landowners,
  • reorganizing fire suppression in the federal government, and
  • state and federal funding for wildland fire.