Wildfire activity in 2019 was heavier than usual in Alaska, but slower than average in rest of U.S.

The number of acres burned in the lower 48-states was the least since 2004

Williams Flats Fire Washington
The Incident Management Team titled this photo at the Williams Flats Fire, “Success at the goat ranch”. It was uploaded to InciWeb August 4, 2019 and shows a single engine air tanker scooping water to refill its tank.

The statistics collected by the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) for last year’s fire activity confirm what wildland firefighters in the United States already knew — the fire season in the lower 48 states was much slower than average. Outside of Alaska 2,210,266 acres burned, about 40 percent of the 10-year average of 5,608,376 acres. The 2019 lower 48 total was the least since 2004 when 1,451,902 acres were blackened.

However, the number of acres burned in Alaska, 2,454,098, was almost double the 10-year average for the state and was more than the other 49 states combined. That and the fact that fires in Alaska are managed far differently than those in the rest of the U.S. is why at Wildfire Today we keep the statistics separate.

Wildfire acres burned -- US except Alaska, 1971-2019
2019 US acres burned, except Alaska. Stats by NICC. Numbers prior to 1983 may not be reliable. Processed by Wildfire Today. (this image corrects one posted earlier)
Number of fires, US except Alaska, 1970-2019 wildfires
Number of fires, U.S. except Alaska, 1970-2019. Data prior to 1983 may not be reliable.

All other Geographic Areas saw below average acres burned: Southwest (78%), Northern California (48%), Great Basin (42%), Eastern (38%), Southern Area (38%), Northwest (28%), Rocky Mountain (24%), Southern California (20%), and Northern Rockies (15%). Only 27 fires and complexes exceeded 40,000 acres in 2019, which is 21 fewer than 2018.

Map showing the occurrence of large wildfires in 2019
Map showing the occurrence of large wildfires in 2019. NICC.

The eight largest fires in Lower 48 states in 2019

NameStateStart DateSizeCauseEstimated Suppression Cost
WoodburyAZJune 8123,875Unknown$20,000,000
SheepIDJune 22112,106Lightning$710,000
KincadeCAOct. 2377,758Unknown$77,144,000
PotholeIDAug. 669,704Human$600,000
WalkerCAAug. 1654,608Unknown$35,600,000
Williams FlattWAAug. 244,446Lightning$19,432,000
SawgrassFLJune 2342,000Lightningnot reported
Cold CreekWAJuly 1841,920Unknown$900,000

One reason for the slowdown in wildfire activity was the weather — it was not as hot, dry, and windy across the Western United States as we have been accustomed to in a typical summer. This affected the Preparedness Level (PL), which is the planning and organizational readiness dictated by burning conditions, fire activity, and resource availability. In 2019 the PL never rose above three, with five being the highest possible level of preparedness. On August 6 it was raised to PL 3 where it remained for only nine days. This is the first time PL 4 has a not been reached since 2010. In 2017 and 2018 we were at PL 4 or 5 for a total of 122 days.

Incident Management Team mobilizations 2009-2019
Incident Management Team mobilizations 2009-2019. NICC.

The number of mobilizations of Type 1 Incident Management  Teams was about a third of the 10-year average — 12 fires compared to the average of 33. There were no T-1 IMTs deployed during 2019 in the Great Basin, Northern Rockies, or Northwest Geographic Areas.

Between June 5th and July 10th the United States provided 20 crews and 24 individual wildland fire personnel to Alberta, Canada. Between November 14th and December 31st, through the NIFC-Australia Agreement, 85 wildland fire personnel were assigned to support large fires in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. Support to Australia has continued into 2020.

The number of crews mobilized, 614, was 71 percent of the 10-year average. Nationally the unable to fill rate on crews was 15 percent, but was much higher in Northern California where it was 42 percent.

2019 Engine mobilizations wildfires
2019 Engine mobilizations. NICC.

NICC received 949 engine requests in 2019, which was 61 percent of the 10-year average. Of these requests, 789 were filled, 64 were canceled and 96 (10 percent) were unable to be filled (UTF). There were 13 requests placed to NICC for tactical water tenders, of which 11 were filled, two canceled, and zero UTF.

The number of overhead mobilizations was two-thirds of the 10-year average, with 9 percent UTF.

Large air tankers exclusive use contracts 2000-2019
Large air tankers on exclusive use contracts, 2000-2019. NICC data processed by FireAviation.

A total of 438 Very Large Air Tanker, Type 1, and Type 2 large airtanker requests were received by NICC in 2019. Of that total, 308 requests were filled, 41 were canceled and 89 (20 percent) were UTF. The NICC received no requests for MAFFS in 2019.

NICC received 78 requests in 2019 for Single Engine Air Tankers and Type 3 Air Tankers, of which 64 were filled, 6 were canceled, and 8 were UTF.

Eurocopter AS-350 AStar, N357TA
Eurocopter AS-350 AStar, N357TA, owned by Roberts Aircraft Co. Working the Prairie Dog Fire in Wind Cave National Park July 7, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A total of 351 Type 1, 2 and 3 helicopter requests were received by NICC in 2019, 274 were filled, 38 were canceled, and 39 (11 percent) were UTF. Of the 151 Type 1 helicopter requests placed to NICC, 130 were filled, 14 were canceled and 7 (5 percent) were UTF. Of the 100 requests placed to NICC for Type 2 helicopters, 66 were filled, 12 canceled and 22 (33 percent) were UTF. Of the 100 requests placed to NICC for Type 3 helicopters, 78 were filled, 12 canceled and 10 (12 percent) were UTF.

There were no activations of military C-130 aircraft with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems, MAFFS, for the first time since 2010.

NICC arranged for 5,197 passengers to be transported on large aircraft, mostly on a B737 that was on fire season contract. There were also two additional large aircraft charter flights that were arranged by NICC.

A total of 49 requests for mobile food services were received at NICC in 2019. Of these 47 were filled, two were canceled and zero were UTF. A total of 62 shower units were requested, and all of these were filled (none were canceled or UTF).

The number of shower and food service mobilizations were both 44 percent of the 10-year average.

acres wildfires human caused
Acres burned, broken down by geographic area, of fires caused by humans (rather than lightning). NICC.

Here is a list of the abbreviations for the Geographic Areas as shown in the reports: AK Alaska, EA Eastern, GB Great Basin, NO Northern California (North Operations), NR Northern Rockies, NW Northwest, RM Rocky Mountains, SA Southern, SO Southern California (South Operations), SW Southwest, ST/OT States/other, and CN Canada.

number of prescribed fire accomplishments in 2019, by federal agencies
Prescribed fire accomplishments in 2019. NICC.
number of prescribed fires in 2019, by federal agency
The number of prescribed fires in 2019 by agency. NICC.

National MAC Group encourages use of Area Command Teams

Some members of the teams may lose currency due to a lack of assignments

Total wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018The use of Area Command Teams has been declining in recent years in spite of the trend of more acres burned nationwide and increasing average size.

In two of the last three years, 2016 and 2018, there were no assignments for Area Command Teams. In 2017 there were a total of five: Joe Stutler-2, Tim Sexton-1, and Rowdy Muir-2.  The number of ACTs was reduced from four to three in 2015.

The National Multiagency Coordinating Group (NMAC) which manages the ACTs, is concerned that if the teams do not receive assignments some individuals on the teams may lose currency in 2020.

Below is an excerpt from a letter sent by the NMAC on May 17, 2019 to Federal and State Agency Administrators:

NMAC is requesting your support with maintaining currency of the three federally sponsored Area Command Teams (ACT). These teams are a valuable part of our large fire management organization and have been underutilized during some of our most complex incident management situations.

Currently, within federal agencies (excluding Coast Guard), there are only three fully qualified Area Commanders (ACDRs) in the system. While the Area Command course, S-620 has been delivered this year, the lack of assignments may cause loss of currency of the ACTs in 2020.

ACTs provide strategic leadership to large theaters of operation while significantly reducing the workload for agency administrators and fire management staff. Common roles of ACTs typically include facilitating Incident Management Team (IMT) transitions, in-briefings, and closeouts. Additionally, ACTs coordinate with agency administrators, fire staffs, geographic areas, and MAC groups on complexity analysis, implementation of objectives and strategies, setting priorities for the allocation of critical resources, and facilitating the effective use of resources within the area.

We are concerned perceptions exist that ACTs can be barriers to direct communications between agencies and IMTs. As agency administrator, through your delegation of authority communicating your expectations to ACDRs, you have the opportunity to determine the role in which ACTs can best serve your needs. ACTs are committed to ensuring enhanced communications between agency administrators, fire managers, and IMTs.

NMAC request the support of agency administrators to exercise current ACTs in 2019 if and when appropriate.

It is surprising how many large complex incidents do not get a chance to benefit from the help that an ACT can provide. Even in 2016 when there were many large fires burning in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina at the same time, no ACTs were mobilized. You might wonder if any of the fires, including the one that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, would have turned out differently if there had been a group of highly skilled personnel looking at the big picture, helping to obtain resources, analyzing the weather forecast, and utilizing short and long range fire behavior predictions.

An ACT may be used to oversee the management of large incidents or those to which multiple Incident Management Teams have been assigned. They can take some of the workload off the local administrative unit when they have multiple incidents going at the same time. Your typical Forest or Park is not usually staffed to supervise two or more Incident Management Teams fighting fire in their area. An ACT can provide decision support to Multi-Agency Coordination Groups for allocating scarce resources and help mitigate the span of control for the local Agency Administrator. They also ensure that incidents are properly managed, coordinate team transitions, and evaluate Incident Management Teams.

National ACTs are comprised of the following:

  • Area Commander (ACDR);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Planning (AAPC);
  • Assistant Area Commander, Logistics (AALC);
  • Area Command Aviation Coordinator (ACAC); and
  • Two trainees.

They usually have an additional 2 to 15 specialists, including Fire Information, Situation Unit Leader, Resource Unit Leader, and sometimes others such as Safety, Long Term Planning, or assistants in Planning, Logistics, or Aviation.

Average Wildland Fire Size, United States, 1985-2018
Average Wildland Fire Size, United States, 1985-2018.

Analysis of 865 fatalities on wildfires in Southern Europe

fatalities wildfires southern Europe

A paper published in January describes an analysis of 865  civilian and firefighter fatalities in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Sardinia (Italy) from 1945 through 2016. They found that 77 percent of the fatalities occurred in the months of July, August, and September, and that Sardinia (a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea) had the highest rate of fatalities based on their population, 10.01 per million inhabitants.

The leading cause of death was burns and suffocation, followed by health problems including heart attacks, physical trauma, respiratory problems, and exhaustion. Next was aviation accidents and then terrestrial accidents.

All of the images shown here are from the research paper.

fatalities wildfires southern Europe

 


fatalities wildfires southern Europe


A surprisingly high number of fatalities were the result of aviation accidents. Here is an excerpt from the document:

Aircraft-crew fatalities are not negligible, particularly in Spain, where 72 out of the total 96 fatalities reported occurred. This is alarming, although it can be explained to some extent by the heavy use of aerial-firefighting resources in Spain when compared, for example, to Portugal. Aerial firefighting is also heavily applied in Greece, although fatalities in this country are not just the result of the number of flying hours, but also of a host of other parameters still to be investigated and described by specialists. Indeed, an evaluation and a comparison between countries of these other parameters and operational protocols are needed.

 


fatalities wildfires southern Europe

 


fatalities wildfires southern Europe

Authors of the paper: Domingo M. Molina-Terre´n, Gavriil Xanthopoulos, Michalis Diakakis, Luis Ribeiro, David Caballero, Giuseppe M. Delogu, Domingos X. Viegas, Carlos A. Silva, and Adria´n Cardil.

Average size of wildfires continued to increase in 2018

The number of acres burned and the total number of fires decreased in 2018 from 2017

 1985-2018 wildfires average size decade

While the number of wildfires and the total acres burned both declined in 2018 the average size continued to increase. The number of wildfires has been trending down since at least 1985 and the average size has been increasing. There are variations in the number of acres burned from year to year roughly in five to six-year cycles, but in the late 1980s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 30 acres. That number has increased every decade since, bringing the average for this decade (to date) up to 101 acres.

The number of acres burned and the total number of fires decreased in 2018 from 2017 by 13 and 22 percent respectively, while the acres burned was sixth highest since records have been kept.

If the five to six-year cycle for burned acres that we noticed in the data is real, and continues, we could expect lower numbers for the next three to four years beginning in 2019 compared to 2017 and 2018.

The raw data we used to construct these charts is from the National Interagency Fire Center, current as of December 21, 2018. The historical data for Alaska before 1990 which we used to determine the numbers for the other 49 states is from a paper published by the University of Alaska.

Wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018

 1985-2018 wildfires total number

 1985-2018 wildfires average size

Forest Service now offers one-year contracts for air tankers

This may be a result of inadequate funding for firefighting by the Administration and Congress

(Originally published at Fire Aviation.)

number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract
The number of large air tankers under exclusive use contract by the U.S. federal government, 2000 through 2018, at the beginning of the wildfire season.

The U.S. federal government has taken steps over the last 16 years that have reduced the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts from 44 in 2002 to 13 in 2018. After the wings fell off two air tankers in 2002 killing five crew members, the Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the program, began cancelling contracts for World War II and eventually Korean War vintage aircraft that had been converted to fight fire.

BAe-146 dropping on the Bryant Fire
BAe-146 dropping on the Bryant Fire in Oregon, June 21, 2014. Photo by Chris Friend, ODF.

There was no substantial effort to rebuild the fleet until 11 years later when the USFS began awarding contracts for “next generation” air tankers. A few years after that the last of the 50-year old P2V tankers were retired. Following the half-hearted attempt at rebuilding the program, the total number of tankers on contract rose to 20 in 2016 and 2017, but by 2018 had dropped to 13.

The policies being implemented recently could further reduce the number in the coming years.

In 2016 the USFS awarded a one-year exclusive use contract for two water scoopers, with the option for adding four additional years. In 2017 at the end of the second year the USFS decided to not extend the contract for 2018. But during the 2018 fire season they hired the scoopers on a Call When Needed (CWN) basis. An analysis Fire Aviation completed in February, 2018 found that the average cost to the government for CWN large air tankers is much more than Exclusive Use aircraft that work for an entire fire season. The daily rate is 54 percent higher while the hourly rate is 18 percent higher.

The practice of advertising one-year contracts is now metastasizing, with the solicitation issued by the USFS on December 3 for one-year contracts for “up to five” large air tankers. These potential contracts also have options for four additional years, but could, like the scoopers, be cancelled or not extended at the discretion of the USFS. If the agency decides to award contracts for five aircraft, it would bring the total up to 18.

Earlier this year the USFS shut down the program that was focused on converting seven former U.S. Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft into air tankers. Now they are being moved to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona until the planes can be transferred to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as required in legislation in August. From 2016 to the summer of 2018 one of the HC-130H’s was used occasionally on fires with a borrowed retardant tank temporarily installed.

Air tankers are very expensive to purchase and retrofit. Most of the jet-powered tankers being used today before being converted were retired from their original mission and are decades old, but two models of scooper or large air tankers can be purchased new. The CL-415 amphibious scooper cost about $37 million in 2014 but Bombardier stopped building them in 2015, and the new owner of the business, Viking, has not resumed manufacturing the aircraft. A new Q400 can be ordered from Bombardier with an external retardant tank for around $34 million.

Most air tanker operators in the United States prefer to buy retired airliners like the BAe-146,  DC-10, or variants of the C-130 and convert them to carry and dispense retardant. Retrofitting alone runs into the millions. Few if any vendors can simply write a check to purchase and convert an air tanker, so they have to convince a lender to give them large sums of money usually even before they have a contract with the USFS. With this new one-year contract policy, obtaining those funds could be even more difficult.

Below is an excerpt from the Missoulian:

“They’re only offering a one-year contract,” said Ron Hooper, president of Missoula-based Neptune Aviation. “We can’t go to the bank with a one-year contract to finance airplanes. They just laugh at us.”

Even if a vendor received a guaranteed five-year contract it can be difficult to establish and implement a long-term business plan that would make sense to their banker and the solvency of the company.

The province of Manitoba just awarded a 10-year contract for the management, maintenance, and operation of their fleet of seven water-scooping air tankers (four CL-415s and three CL-215s), supported by three Twin Commander “bird-dog” aircraft.

If the occurrence of wildfires was rapidly declining, reducing the air tanker fleet would make sense. However everyone knows the opposite is happening.

(The two charts below were updated February 2, 2019)

Wildfire Acres Burned 1985-2018

In the late 1980s the average size of a wildfire in the U.S. was 30 acres. That has increased every decade since, bringing the average in the 2010s up to 101 acres.

1985-2018 wildfires average size decade

More acres are burning and the fires are growing much larger while the Administration and Congress reduces the capability of the federal agencies to fight fires.

For the last several years Congress has appropriated the same amount of funds for the U.S. Forest Service, for example. But meanwhile, it costs more to pay for wages, fire trucks, office expenses, travel, and more expensive but safer more reliable air tankers. This leaves less money for everything including vegetation management, prescribed burning, fire prevention, salaries, and firefighting aircraft.

In addition to the reduction in air tankers, the largest and most efficient helicopters, Type 1’s such as the Air Crane, were cut two years ago by 18 percent, from 34 to 28.

In 2017 the number of requests for Type 1 helicopters on fires was close to average, but the number of orders that were Unable To be Filled (UTF) was almost double the number of filled orders. In 2017, 60 percent of the requests were not filled — 220 of the 370 that were needed. That is by far the highest percentage of UTFs in the last 18 years. The second highest was 46 percent in 2012.

number type 1 helicopters firefighting order requests filled
Aircraft can’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread of a fire enough to allow firefighters on the ground to move in and put them out.

It might be easy to blame the USFS for the cutbacks in fire suppression capability, but a person in the agency’s Washington headquarters who prefers to not have their name mentioned said it is a result of a shortage of funds appropriated by Congress. The Administration’s request for firefighting in the FY 2019 budget calls for 18 large air tankers and intends to maintain the 18 percent reduction in Type 1 helicopters, keeping that number at only 28 for the third year in a row.

What can be done?

These one-year firefighting aircraft contracts need to be converted to 10-year contracts, and the number of Type 1 helicopters must be restored to at least the 34 we had for years.

In addition to aircraft, the federal agencies need to have much more funding for activities that can prevent fires from starting and also keep them from turning into megafires that threaten lives, communities, and private land. More prescribed burning and other fuel treatments are absolutely necessary.

The only way this will happen is if the President and Congress realize the urgency and pass and sign the legislation. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will become as the effects of climate change become even more profound.

wildfires climate change
The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred. Source: adapted from Abatzoglou and Williams 2016.

Visualizing California fires over the last 18 years

I love well designed graphics, and this one from Axios certainly falls into that category. It shows the time of the year wildfires larger than 300 acres occurred in California.

Click on the chart a couple of times to see a larger version.