The number of acres burned and the total number of fires decreased in 2018 from 2017
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 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.
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.
Wildfires consumed 9.7 million acres in the United States in 2017
It will probably not come as a surprise to many, but the number of acres burned in the United States in 2017 came close to breaking a record. The numbers are preliminary and could change over the next few weeks as the data is finalized but the acres burned in the 50 states, 9,781,062, was the second highest since reliable records have been kept. That is 49 percent higher than the average over the last 10 years. Even as the trend line for the acres burned has increased dramatically since 1990 the total number of fires has generally been slowly decreasing. In 2017, 66,131 fires were reported, which was 4 percent lower than the 10-year average.
But to look at the big picture, at Wildfire Today we like to analyze the national trends without the stats from Alaska, and there are two reasons why. Fires in that huge state are managed far differently from the other 49 states. Most of them are not fully suppressed since they are less likely to endanger people or private property than in the lower 49 states. The second reason is that the fire occurrence is extremely variable, with the acres burned since 1990 ranging, for example, from 43,965 acres in 1995 to 6,645,978 in 2004. Including the Alaska numbers would skew the data for the other 49 states making it more difficult to spot trends.
In case you are wondering why our charts only go back as far as 1990, we are not convinced that the information before that is reliable. In the data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center there was a very sudden, long lasting major shift in the numbers beginning in the early 1980s.
The sloping horizontal lines in the charts represent the statistical linear trend.
A statistic that is quite interesting is the average size. The linear trend line starts at about 22 acres in 1990 and reaches close to 100 acres by 2017. In fact, the average size in 2017 was 139 acres. There could be a number of reasons for this huge increase:
Weather that is warmer and drier making fires more difficult to suppress.
One hundred years of fire suppression has led to forests that are more dense and fires that burn with greater intensity.
A less aggressive strategy is being used on large fires more often for safety reasons.
More fires are allowed to burn naturally without full suppression for environmental concerns.
There may have been a change in the initial attack of new fires, responding with less equipment and personnel.
Above: Map showing the probability of a wildfire of at least 100 acres on January 12 between 1992 and 2015.
(Originally published at 10:40 a.m. MST January 9, 2018)
If you are searching for something to do on a cold winter day the National Weather Service has just what you need — an interactive map system showing the probability of a wildfire of various sizes by date of the year. You can choose what size fire you’re interested in, 100, 300, 1,000, or 5,000 acres and allow the map to animate the entire year, or manually step through in three-day intervals. The data is based on wildfire occurrence between 1992 and 2015.
It is interesting seeing how activity builds and declines in specific areas like southeast Oklahoma, northern Minnesota, and the confluence of Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
Thanks go out to Nick Nauslar of the NWS Storm Prediction Center for updating the maps.
Above: Junkins Fire, southwest of Pueblo, Colorado. Photo provided by the Incident Management Team on October 19, 2016.
There have been many discussions recently on this website, in the scientific community, and in the more public arena about why the number of acres burned in wildfires has been increasing rapidly over the last several decades. From the mid-1980s through 2015 the average number of acres burned has grown from about 2 million acres a year to around 8 million. Some people like to claim that this was caused by climate change, environmentalists preventing timber from being harvested, or other factors. However, to complicate the issue, some data appears to indicate that between 1920 and 1950, 10 million to 50 million acres burned each year.
It is very difficult to say that one factor caused fire occurrence to change. While comparing acres burned in the early part of the 20th century to what we are seeing in recent decades, many variables need to be considered:
–Weather and climate trends. This has been vigorously discussed in many venues.
–The capacity to suppress wildfires. In the first two-thirds of the 20th century the ability of land managers to suppress wildfires was very different from what we have today. Fire engines now carry many times more water, and transportation systems enable quicker initial attack response. Helicopters and air tankers were brought into the equation. Heavy equipment became more prolific and capable. More efficient communication and dispatch systems were created. Fires are detected more quickly. Firefighters are routinely brought in from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
–The wildland-urban interface is growing. More people are living and recreating where previously there was less human activity. This can increase the number of fire starts, and the endangered structures often have an effect on the priorities of firefighters and where they are deployed, as opposed concentrating forces where they are most likely to contain the fire.
—Changes in how timber is managed and harvested.
–Fire suppression can result in longer fire return intervals and increases in the amount of fuel available for the next fire.
–Fuel treatments: mechanical and prescribed fire.
–Changes in the vegetation: non-native species, insects, disease.
–Accuracy of the fire occurrence data. Can the data for 1920 be compared with the data from 2016? The fire occurrence data at NIFC for 1962 through 2015 shows a huge swing beginning in 1983 and 1984, with the number of fires overnight dropping by about 50%, a trend that continued through 2015. This leads one to lose confidence in the data. One would think that the more modern era, post 1984, would have more accurate information than previous decades.
–Changes in wildfire management policy: full, limited, or no suppression.
Our readers will probably suggest even more factors that affect the number of fires and acres burned.
Considering all of these variables, I am skeptical of reports saying that just one is responsible for changes in the number fires and acres burned.