New data that the National Interagency Fire Center released about the 2012 wildfire season reveals that almost half, or 48 percent, of the requests for large air tankers could not be filled. Of the 914 requests, 438 were rejected as “unable to fill” (UTF), meaning no air tankers were available to respond to the fire; 67 were cancelled for various reasons.
2012 was a very busy wildfire season. The Federal government and some states exhausted their funds set aside for suppressing fires. The number of acres burned, 9,093,431 as of November 22, 2012, was the third highest since national wildfire statistics have been kept beginning in 1960. Remaining at the number one and two spots are 2006 with 9.9 million, and 2007 with 9.3 million.
You may not be able to say that a specific home run hit by Barry Bonds was caused by performance enhancing drugs, but the record he set in 2001 for the most home runs in a season is probably related to the steroids. While you can’t assume that a specific large fire was caused by global warming or a reduction in the number of ground and air firefighting resources available, when a trend is observed over a period of years it becomes more statistically significant and worthy of study.
Six of the last nine years had more burned acres than in any year between 1960 and 2003.
We constructed the charts below from statistics provided by the National Interagency Fire Center and the Alaska Division of Forestry, through November 22, 2012. While the numbers above include stats for the state of Alaska, the figures below do not include that state because fire management in Alaska is an entirely different animal. Some fires there are not suppressed at all, and many of them are only managed in a limited fashion. The number of acres burned in Alaska can vary widely, for example from 43,965 in 1995 to 6,645,978 in 2004. If you are going to analyze trends, we determined it is best to separate Alaska from the lower 49 states. While stats for the entire United States go back to 1960, it appears that the numbers prior to 1986 are suspect, perhaps as a result of a change in 1982 in the way the statistics were collected. We were able to find numbers for Alaska going back to 1990.
The average size of fires can tell you more than the raw number of fires or acres, because it can reflect changes in climate, or how the fires were managed or suppressed, such as the number of firefighters available, budget cuts or increases, or changes in the number of air tankers available (from 44 in early 2002 to 9 in 2012).
The number of wildfires has been decreasing, while the average size has been increasing rapidly.
We set another record in 2012 for the average size of a wildfire in the lower 49 states. In fact the previous record set only last year of 114 acres per fire was completely blown away by 48 percent, increasing to 165 acres per fire in 2012.
The bottom line
Whatever the reason is for having larger fires and burning more acres, the wildfire suppression paradigm we have been using for the last decade has become obsolete and we need to try something different. The declining budgets we have been seeing over the last several years are obviously not the answer. Neither is attempting to fight fires “on the cheap”.
We can debate the reasons for it, but there is no question that over the last 40 years the average size of wildfires has increased. The data we collected from the National Interagency Fire Center when grouped by decade shows that the average size of fires between 1970 and 2009 has more than quadrupled.
Climate Central has also noticed this and issued a report about the change in fire activity over the last 42 years. Here are some highlights:
The National Research Council reports that for every degree Celsius (1.8°F) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could quadruple.
For the last decade, compared to the 1970s, there were 7 times more fires greater than 10,000 acres and nearly 5 times more fires larger than 25,000 acres each year.
Since the 1970s the average number of fires over 1,000 acres each year has nearly quadrupled in Arizona and Idaho, and has doubled in California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The burn season is two and a half months longer than 40 years ago.
Rising spring and summer temperatures across the West appear to be correlated to the increasing size and numbers of wildfires. Spring and summer temperatures have increased more rapidly across this region than the rest of the country, in recent decades. Since 1970, years with above-average spring and summer temperatures were typically years with the biggest wildfires.
In spite of this clear trend of increasing wildfires, Congress and the Administration have been reducing the budgets of the federal land management agencies, and have cut the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts by 80 percent since 2002, from 44 to 9. However, seven more air tankers may be added over the next year, bringing the total to 16. William Scott, a fire aviation expert who also has experience in the National Security Agency, thinks that terrorists could, and perhaps already are waging economic war inside the United State by starting wildfires which can cost the government and residents billions of dollars.
The media frequently reports on wildfire-related events that are exciting, such as big flames, hundreds of burned homes, and thousands of evacuated residents. but an under-reported aspect of wildfire management is the effects of reductions in funding. Every time Congress passes and the President signs a bill that reduces funding for fire suppression, fuel management, and fire prevention, there are proportional effects that ripple throughout the federal land management agencies. It appears that the chickens have come home to roost as we have fewer federal wildland firefighters, fewer staffed engines, and an air tanker fleet that has been reduced from 44 in 2002 to the 9 exclusive use large air tankers that are currently working under contract.
As we lose the ability to aggressively attack new fires with overwhelming force, more fires become mega-expensive conflagrations that cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to attempt to put out. A relatively small upfront expense for ground and air resources arriving within the first 30 minutes can be very cost effective when the fire is put out and everyone one goes back to the fire station to prepare for the next one.
…A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.
It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.
But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.
Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.
Campaigners say that leaves the federal government agencies responsible for preventing and putting out wildfires under-funded – especially given projections suggesting a rise in wildfires over the next 20 years.
They also worry the government agencies responsible for fire protection are putting capital projects on hold – such as updating its fleet of air tankers.
President Obama has released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. At this point it is merely a suggestion until Congress passes appropriation or spending cap bills.
The budget fully funds the 10-year average cost of wildland fire suppression operations, but there is a reduction in the funding of the treatment of hazardous fuels — by 24% in the Department of Agriculture and by 21% in the Department of Interior.
The numbers in the table below are in millions, and represent the proposed wildfire budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and the four land management agencies within the Department of Interior.
USFS Hazardous Fuels
USDA State & Volunteer Fire Assistance Grants
DOI Hazardous Fuels
DOI Rural Fire Assistance (was $7 million in 2011)
In the Department of Interior’s justification for the 21% reduction in the hazardous fuels budget, they invoked the name of a U.S. Forest Service researcher, Jack Coehn, who has studied the wildland urban interface:
The Wildland Fire Management account in DOI supports wildland fire preparedness, suppression, rehabilitation, and hazardous fuels reduction activities. When targeted properly, hazardous fuels reduction activities (e.g., removing brush and small trees in strategic locations) can reduce impacts from wildfires, including threats to public safety, suppression costs, and damage to natural and cultural resources.
DOI and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service have agreed on several actions to reduce impacts from wildfires, such as: 1) prioritizing fuels treatments that have been identified as key components of Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are cost effective; and 2) expanding wildland fire use as a means of treating fuels.
Although funding for hazardous fuels treatments has quadrupled since 2000, the previous policy of treatingthe greatest number of acres possible has led to a patchwork of hazardous fuels treatment that has not been as focused as it could have been on reducing risks in the WUI. As suggested by Forest Service scientists, extensive wildland vegetation management does not effectively change whether or not homes in the WUI catch on fire. However, when there is a clear priority of treating acres within the WUI, hazardous fuels treatments can be more effective in reducing risk.
1,2 In 2013, the Forest Service and DOI will target fuels management activities to mitigate hazards and enhance the ability to control fires in WUI. The agencies will focus funding for hazardous fuels treatments in communities that are on track to meet Firewise standards and have identified acres to be treated in Community Wildfire Protection Plans (or the equivalent) and have made an investment in implementing local solutions to protect against wildland fire.
The Department of Agriculture explained their reduction in the U.S. Forest Service’s hazardous fuels budget, saying that “though the majority of the inexpensive locations have now been treated to reduce hazardous fuels, FS is also furthering its efforts to focus its hazardous fuels treatments in the Wildland-Urban Interface in areas that are identified in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are highest priority.”
The number of unfilled orders for large air tankers increased to 29.8 percent in 2011, while the number of air tankers that were available on contract fell. In 2010 there were 19 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the unable to fill (UTF) rate was 15 percent.
The higher UTF rate is at least partially due to a busy fire season in the southwest, compared to the slower years of 2009 and 2010. The number of acres burned in the lower 49 states in 2011, which excludes Alaska, was 8.4 million, exceeding the average of 5.1 million between 2000 and 2011.
While the data about UTF rates is difficult to interpret, perhaps we can be safe in saying that if more than 4,000,000 acres burn in the lower 49 states, having 21 or fewer large air tankers tends to result in 25-30% of the air tanker orders being UTF, which is about triple the UTF rate when fewer acres burn. In 2000 with 40 air tankers on contract, 6,600,000 acres burned, and the UTF rate was 7%.
You have to wonder how often incident commanders do not place orders for needed air tankers if they already know that none are available.
UPDATE at 9:00 p.m. MT, January 25, 2012:
We received an email from Scott and we asked him if we could post what he wrote. Here it is:
You wrote “You have to wonder how often incident commanders do not place orders for needed air tankers if they already know that none are available.” This statement is hauntingly similiar to those found in John McLean’s “Fire on the Mountain”, where the author reported airtankers were not ordered during early phase of South Canyon Fire because of assumption “none were available”. The Lesson Learned was don’t assume. Place the orders, justify the need, and push for priority. Still may not get AT, but you tried. Obviously, the reduction in total number AT is ominous for the future. Thanks for keeping it on the front burner.