California and Oregon fires — lives lost and structures burned

Elkhorn Fire
Elkhorn Fire. Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California. September 3, 2020. Sanford Ridge Off of Winter Trail in Wilderness Area. Photo by Mike McMillan.

Lives lost

The tally of the number of lives lost in the California and Oregon blazes will undoubtedly climb as teams search through the footprints of residences. It took weeks in 2018 to document every fatality at the Camp Fire at Paradise, California. Here are the numbers collected so far by the San Francisco Chronicle:

  • 19, at least — California
  • 10, at least — Oregon

Structures destroyed

It is difficult to get good consistent numbers about structures that have burned. CAL FIRE usually includes damaged buildings as well as those that have been destroyed. The Incident Status Summary, ICS-209, that incident management teams on a fire submit every day asks for the number that were destroyed. And it is likely that many teams on fires have not had the time to count all of the affected structures.

Here are the numbers of destroyed structures from the September 14, 2020 National Incident Management Situation Report compiled at the National Interagency Coordination Center, broken down by Geographic Areas. It uses data from the ICS-209:

  •  4,258 — California
  • 2,077 –Northwest (Washington & Oregon)
  • 168 — Northern Rockies
  • 46  — Great Basin
  • 64 — Rocky Mountain

Acres burned

The fire season is not over in all areas, but the number of acres burned to date has exceeded the 10-year average number burned in a year. But the figure varies greatly from year to year. 2019 had the least number since 2004, when considering only the states outside of Alaska.

5,887,136 — The total number of acres burned to date in the U.S., not counting Alaska

5,608,376 — 10-year annual average number of acres burned in the U.S., not counting Alaska

Acres burned annually in the U.S.
Acres burned annually in the U.S., 1985-2019, except Alaska.

There have been many large fires in the last one to two months in Arizona, California, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, but it has been quieter than usual in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

Fire aviation in Australia, graphically

Bloomberg graphic fires wildfires air tankers Australia
Bloomberg graphic showing the flight paths of North America based air tankers that travelled to Australia for their 2019-2020 wildfire season.

When a reporter for Bloomberg asked me if she could interview me I said OK, as long as I could have the rights to publish the article on my web site — Mira Rojanasakul said yes. I thought the article, written with Hayley Warren, was going to be primarily about air tankers, and those used in Australia in particular, but now that it has been published today I see that it also covers how climate change is affecting wildfires down under and in the United States.

In addition to being a writer, Ms. Rojanasakul is an accomplished graphics editor for Bloomberg. And that’s why I’m writing about this article and why you should check it out. She takes graphics to a higher level.

Here are some samples.

Bloomberg graphic fires wildfires air tankers Australia
Bloomberg graphic, showing the flight paths of various firefighting and mapping aircraft in Australia.

A very impressive large animated version of the graphic below is on the Bloomberg website.

Bloomberg graphic wildfires bushfires australia fire aviation
Between July 2019 and February 2020, nearly 40,000 flights by firefighting aircraft were taken over southeast Australia.
Bloomberg graphic fires wildfires air tankers Australia
The occurrence of wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California showing how some of them occurred during the summer bushfire season in Australia. If aviation resources are going to be shared between North America and Australia, this information comes into play. Bloomberg graphic.
Bloomberg graphic fires wildfires air tankers Australia
Bloomberg graphic
Bloomberg graphic fires wildfires air tankers Australia
Bloomberg graphic

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