Category Archives: Fire suppression

Up in smoke: federal wildfire suppression costs are rising

Federal spending to fight wildfires is trending higher. Not only is the overall, inflation-adjusted cost increasing, but the federal cost per wildfire and per acre burned are also on the upswing.

Before the federal shutdown turned government websites into virtual ghost towns, I was snooping around the National Interagency Fire Center’s site, and I came across some new data on suppression spending (specifically this table). Below is a screenshot of a dashboard that I built to visualize the data (click to enlarge).

Wildfire suppression costsSome thoughts about the three graphics in this dashboard:

1) Overall costs increasing, but not steadily

In recent years, the annual tab for U.S. taxpayers has sometimes exceeded $2 billion (in 2012 dollars). But as we’ve discussed in previous posts, wildfire activity can vary dramatically from year to year, largely due to weather conditions, so the costs also jump around. The U.S. Forest Service accounts for the bulk of spending. As shown in the graphic below from our politics deck, wildfires make up the biggest chunk of the agency’s budget. Bad fire years often require emergency or supplemental spending, shown at the top in pink.

Forest Service budget

2) Why are costs per fire and acre increasing?

The acreage burned by wildfires is trending higher, so it’s not surprising that the overall total for suppression is also rising. But I was intrigued to discover that the amount of money spent per fire and per acre burned is also increasing. To calculate these measures, I took the total spending and divided by the number of fires and acres classified as “federal.” Now, I’m sure that some federal suppression funds have helped fight wildfires on non-federal lands, and I’m certain that the budgets of state and local fire agencies have sometimes helped battle fires on federal property. So this simple calculation may have issues, but it seems like a metric worth watching.

It’s not clear why these figures are rising. Is it a sign of mounting government inefficiency? Are increasingly intense wildfires more difficult to control? Are fire managers using more expensive resources, such as air power? For more on the last question, see this Los Angeles Times story, part of a great 2008 series on wildfires by Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart, who won the Pulitzer Prize for their work. Aviation accounts for about one-fifth of the Forest Service’s suppression budget, according to the story, but as the headline says, “Air tanker drops in wildfires are often just for show.”

An air tanker drops retardant in Arizona's Coronado National Forest. Photo by Mitch Tobin.
An air tanker drops retardant in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

3) Forest Service and Interior suppression costs move together

The scatterplot in the dashboard shows that wildfire spending by the Forest Service tends to track spending by agencies in the Interior Department, such as the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Not a big surprise, but these various agencies do manage different landscapes, with the Forest Service lands often found in higher elevation areas than rangeland overseen by the BLM, so you would expect some variability between them. The severity of the wildfire season isn’t the only determinant of suppression budgets. The overall fiscal climate presumably influences the budgets for these agencies in a similar way.

Data sources

The National Interagency Fire Center  is the data source for the suppression dashboard. The table also lists the total number of wildfires and acres burned, not just incidents on federal lands. Data on wildfires burned by landowner and agency are available for download our main wildfire page. We also track suppression metrics, such as days at various preparedness levels and deployment of firefighting assets, on this dashboard, which is described in this post.


Download Slides: Wildfire Suppression CostsDownload Slides: Wildfire Suppression Costs (1.53 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Wildfire Suppression CostsDownload Notes: Wildfire Suppression Costs (795.79 kB pdf)
Download Data: Wildfire Suppression CostsDownload Data: Wildfire Suppression Costs (76.25 kB xlsx)

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[catlist name=wildfires]

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Arizona firefighter disaster could be pivotal moment

The shocking deaths of 19 firefighters yesterday in Arizona is a grim milestone in the history of wildland firefighting. Will the Yarnell Hill Fire also be a watershed event in how this nation approaches wildfires?

Sadly, it often takes a national tragedy to raise awareness of problems and force action on solutions.

We know wildfires are getting larger, more people are living in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface (WUI), and climate change will only make the problem worse.

What remains to be seen is whether the disaster will lead to changes in how the nation approaches the wildfire issue. Will it lead to more funding for hazardous fuels reduction and prescribed burns? Will it spur more regulations on development and building practices in the WUI? Will it change how wildland firefighters do their work and make fire managers more risk averse?

A historic tragedy

Looking back over the past century, I think the Yarnell Hill Fire ranks up there with the Great Fire of 1910 (see Stephen Pyne’s Year of the Fires  and Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn) and the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 (see Rocky Barker’s Scorched Earth) as defining moments in the history of U.S. wildfires. The 1910 inferno led to a massive increase in fire suppression; the Yellowstone blazes resulted in greater appreciation of fire’s benefits for many Western ecosystems.

The loss of 19 firefighters in one incident is actually a historic event for all of U.S. firefighting, not just the wildland form. It’s the greatest loss of life since 9/11 and it’s tied for sixth on the all-time list. Notice in the graphic below that almost all of these incidents happened decades ago (this data, from the National Fire Protection Association, has slightly different numbers for wildfire deaths than what the National Interagency Fire Center reports).

Deadliest incidents for U.S. firefighters

A growing problem

While the details from yesterday’s burnover are just emerging, we’ve known for many years that a tragedy like this could happen. We’ve had so many bad wildfires over the past decade or so that it seems the American public and media have become desensitized to hearing that hundreds of homes have been destroyed or hundreds of thousands of acres are ablaze.

The loss of 19 firefighters, however, is anything but normal and hard to ignore. The cynic in me says it may take a huge civilian death toll to really elevate the issue in the national consciousness.

Here are four of the key points that emerged from our research on wildfires:

1)      Wildfires are generally getting bigger

The graphic below shows an upward trend in the average size of U.S. wildfires since 1990. This is very high-level national data, but in another post we provide more detail on the increasing size and intensity of wildfires in the West.

Average size of U.S. wildfires

2) Many fire-prone ecosystems are out of whack

Decades of fire suppression in forests, woodlands, and grasslands that frequently burned under natural conditions has led to an excess of fuel in some areas. The map below shows that the natural cycle has been degraded in nearly all U.S. ecoregions, according to an analysis by The Nature Conservancy.

Condition of natural fire systems

3) More people are living in vulnerable wildland-urban interface

The map below shows where homes are most at risk from wildfires in Arizona. As the West’s population has risen, so has the number of people living in these higher-risk areas. Learn more about the WUI in this post.

Arizona WUI map

4) Climate change will exacerbate problem

Scientists have already found that the warming experienced over the past few decades in the West has led to an increase in wildfire activity. A 2006 paper in Science (graphic below) concluded that “large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly” starting in the mid-1980s, with most of the change due to a warming climate rather than fire suppression. Higher temperatures led to a thinner snowpack that melted earlier in spring, leading to more-flammable conditions in summer and a lengthening of the wildfire season by an average of 78 days.

Westerling et al graphic


We have more analysis and data on our main fire page and on dashboards that cover fire trends, suppression, firefighters, ignition, fuels, and the WUI.

Wildfire metrics send a clear signal that this problem is getting worse, especially in places like Arizona, but solutions are anything but simple. There’s no quick fix for forests and woodlands that are ecologically out of balance due to a century of fire suppression. There are already millions of homes in vulnerable locations and only so much that homeowners can do. Some local communities have taken big strides toward reducing their vulnerability and discouraged building in the WUI, but there is political resistance in the West to statewide mandates.

Fighting wildfires will always be an inherently perilous business, but perhaps the Yarnell Hill disaster will force the public and policymakers to confront this increasingly dangerous issue, evaluate the options, and take action.


Download Slides: Wildfires in the American WestDownload Slides: Wildfires in the American West (37.85 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Wildfires in the American WestDownload Notes: Wildfires in the American West (6.42 MB pdf)
Download Data: Wildfires in the American WestDownload Data: Wildfires in the American West (2.65 MB xlsx)

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[catlist name=wildfires]

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Yarnell Hill wildfire is third-deadliest for U.S. firefighters

The Arizona Republic is reporting tonight that 19 firefighters have died in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

This disaster looks to be the third-deadliest incident in the history of U.S. wildland firefighting and the highest number of deaths in a single episode since 25 were lost in a 1933 fire in Griffith Park, California. The Great Fire of 1910 in the Northern Rockies claimed 72 lives, but there is a lack of data on firefighter deaths in the subsequent two decades.

We just published a post on wildland firefighter fatalities, based on data from the National Interagency Fire Center that is available here.

I’ve extracted all of the incidents in which more than 10 firefighters died and sorted them in the chart below (data is only available through 2011).

Deadliest incidents for U.S. wildland firefighters

A burnover was responsible for all of the deaths in the incidents shown above.

To put the 19 deaths in context, an average of 18 U.S. wildland firefighters have died each year over the past decade. Here’s the number of fatalities per year since 1910:
Wildland firefighter deaths: 1910-2011

You can explore this data and download images on our dashboard page.

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[catlist name=wildfires]

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.