Tag Archives: fires

2013 wildfire season way below average

Wildfires were thrust into the national spotlight twice this year, first when 19 firefighters died in Arizona on June 30, and again in August, when the 257,314-acre Rim Fire burned in and around Yosemite National Park.

But if you look at the federal government’s statistics, 2013 is on track to be one of the quietest wildfire seasons in years. In the West and on Forest Service land, the season was closer to normal, but in the South and East, 2013 was a very quiet year for wildfires.

Year-to-date numbers

By the end of October, 40,775 fires had burned 4.1 million acres nationwide, which was only 63% of the 10-year average for the number fires, and just 59% of the 10-year average for acres burned (click on graphics to enlarge).

U.S. wildfires and acres burned: Jan. 1 - Oct. 31

Some wildfires will break out between now and December 31, but the numbers aren’t going to jump as we head into winter. The time series below, for the full 12 months, shows that the lowest number of fires since 1990 was 58,810 in 1993, so unless there are more than 18,000 fires in November and December, 2013 is going to beat that record.

Number of U.S. wildfires: 1990-2012

Regional breakdown

The graphics above illustrate national data. If you break it down by region, the number of acres burned has been below the 10-year average in every region except Southern California (which encompasses the Rim Fire).

The chart below shows the Southern region is at just 63% of average for fires and 12% for acres, while the number of fires in the Eastern region is 56% of average and the number acres burned is 41% of average. Very wet conditions in the South and East in 2013 were responsible for the diminished fire activity and this played a big part in suppressing the national totals (a map of the regions is here).

Wildfires and acres burned by region: Jan. 1 - Oct. 31

Going into the 2013 wildfire season, it looked like the West might be in store for a bad year. The preceding winter and spring were relatively dry, but some late spring storms and a strong summer monsoon in the Southwest reduced the danger. September was the wettest on record for many places in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, as shown below.

NOAA monthly precip

Fire activity by landowner

Another way to look at fire activity is by landowner. The National Park Service, which saw a chunk of Yosemite National Park burned by the massive Rim Fire, stands out in 2013. But other agencies had fewer fires and acres burned than average. On November 1, the Forest Service was at 92% of average for fires and 93% of average for acres burned. Much of the land in Southern and Eastern regions is private and you can see that reflected in the sub-average total for the “state/other” category, which includes private property.

Wildfires and acres burned by agency: Jan. 1 - Oct. 31

Historic, below-average season

The 2013 season raised the profile of the wildfire issue like few other in recent memory, but if it weren’t for the Yarnell Hill disaster and the Rim Fire, I think we would have seen a fraction of the media coverage.

As I noted in a previous post, national-level wildfire statistics, while interesting and easy to grasp, can obscure more interesting stories happening at the local and regional level. Wildfire manifests in manifold ways in the United States. A lightning-sparked blaze in the Alaskan tundra can scorch a half-million acres of wilderness and claim not a single structure. An arson fire in the suburbs can burn a couple thousand acres and cause $1 billion in property damage.

What seems odd is that even in a slightly below-average year, the Forest Service has once again run out of money for wildfire suppression. Consider these excerpts from an October 30 E&E story with the headline “‘It’s just nuts’ as wildfires drain budget yet again.”

Lightning bolts rained across the West in August, sparking hundreds of wildfires in California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana and pushing the cash-strapped Forest Service to the brink. The service had at that point spent $967 million battling wildfires that had torched more than 3.4 million acres in 2013. Its emergency fund exhausted, it had about $50 million left — enough for about half a week … The Forest Service this year siphoned $505 million from budgets for research, capital improvement and reforestation accounts, among other programs, according to a memo obtained by Greenwire.

In a previous post, we showed that federal wildfire suppression costs are soaring, not only in the aggregate but also per acre and per fire. It’ll be interesting to see if the costs continue the upward march in 2013, even though this season has been relatively tame.

Data sources

The National Interagency Fire Center just published this summary of the 2013 wildfire season to date. NIFC provides data for the January 1 – October 31 time frame going back 10 years. It’s worth noting that if “average” were defined as the past 20 years or some other period, 2013 would rank differently.


Download Slides: 2013 Wildfire SeasonDownload Slides: 2013 Wildfire Season (8.37 MB pptx)
Download Notes: 2013 Wildfire SeasonDownload Notes: 2013 Wildfire Season (770.29 kB pdf)
Download Data: 2013 Wildfire SeasonDownload Data: 2013 Wildfire Season (16.11 kB xlsx)

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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.

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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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.

The fuels dilemma and Western wildfires

When I was getting certified as a wildland firefighter in 2002, they taught us that fire behavior is based on three basic factors.

First, weather: not just the temperature, humidity, and wind at that moment, but also the climatic conditions over the preceding months and years. All else equal, if it’s hot, dry, windy, and you’re in a drought, you’d expect more extreme fire behavior.

Second, topography: drafty canyons, south-facing slopes exposed to the desiccating sun, and other natural features can encourage burning. Fire travels faster uphill, our instructors cautioned us, but firefighters move slower.

Third, fuels: the type of vegetation, its volume, its moisture content, and its continuity on the landscape. As a fire travels from grasslands to woodlands to dense forests, its personality can change radically.

The first two factors–weather and topography–are out of our control, putting aside the fact that we are changing the weather via climate change and loading the dice toward more fire-friendly conditions in the American West.

What we can directly influence are the fuels. We can break the natural cycle of wildfires by suppressing both human- and lighting-caused blazes, allowing the fuel to build up. We can mechanically thin and intentionally burn areas to reduce the amount of fuel available to future wildfires. We can go so far as to cut down all the trees and pave over a place, thereby eliminating the possibility of a wildfire (or a natural ecosystem).

Tracking fuels treatment to tame Western wildfires from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Fuels dilemma

Today, the American West is facing a fuels dilemma. The graphic below shows the condition of fire regimes across the country. Red illustrates areas where wildfires may be significantly altered from their historic behavior, yellow shows areas that are moderately altered from historic conditions, and green marks where conditions are near historical norms. This data is from 2000, but things probably haven’t changed much since then.

Fire regime: departure from historic conditions

I’ve created slides like these to describe the fuels dilemma in a PowerPoint you can download at the bottom of this post. The presentation explains how the policy of fire suppression has disrupted the natural fire regime in many parts of the West. I’ve also analyzed federal statistics on the number of acres thinned and burned, both in the slide deck and on this dashboard page, but the government’s reporting on fuels treatment is lacking and I’m still in search of better data to characterize this crucial issue.

Fuels treatment

The graphic below distinguishes between a couple of different types of fuels treatment. The first distinction is between activity taking place within and beyond the wildland-urban interface. Known by its acronym, the WUI is where property and residents are at greatest risk of wildfires. The second distinction is between thinning with chainsaws (“mechanical”) and prescribed burns (“fire”).

Fuels treatment on federal lands

The total acreage has been climbing in recent years, but the government only reports this data through 2009. I haven’t been able to find anything more current, but would welcome any suggestions from readers. The data source appears to have been created as part of the George W. Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative but not continued by Barack Obama’s administration.

As of 2009, the federal government was treating an increasing number of acres, but it’s critical to remember that these totals are small relative to the size of the problem. Some 190 million acres of federal land face an elevated risk of catastrophic wildfire, according to one widely used estimate from the U.S. Forest Service (see here for technical report).

I was also struck by the considerable amount of thinning taking place outside of the WUI. Proposals to cut down brush and trees right around vulnerable communities often have the backing of environmental groups, but as these thinning projects move farther into the backcountry, they tend to face more opposition, especially if sizable timber harvesting is part of the equation.

Prescribed burns

On a per acre basis, prescribed fires are much less expensive than mechanical thinning projects, but conditions have to be just right to set a prescribed fire so that it doesn’t turn into a disastrous wildfire. That’s happened occasionally in the West, such as the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico and the 2012 Lower North Fork Fire in Colorado that killed three people. Many in the public remain skeptical or outright opposed to prescribed burns because of the risks and smoke.

The graphic below shows that the number of acres burned in prescribed fires was increasing for a while, but the national total is just a couple million acres annually. (This time series, from the National Interagency Fire Center, is part of their annual report and looks like it will continue.)

Acres burned in prescribed fires

Wildland-fire use

The federal government used to report on instances of “wildland fire use,” essentially letting wildfires burn rather than suppressing them. This strategy is still practiced today when fires are in a wilderness or other remote area and not posing a significant threat to property and people. The graphic below shows the number of acres burned in these types of fires, by agency, but the feds stopped reporting this statistic in 2008.


Acres burned in wildland fire use

Looking ahead

In places like the Southwest, there’s pretty broad agreement among scientists, land managers, firefighters, and conservation groups that additional thinning in the WUI and increased prescribed burns could mitigate–but not eliminate–the risks of catastrophic fires destroying homes. The data I’ve found suggest there’s been a slight upward trend in such fuel treatments, but the overall totals are small and are likely to remain so in a time of fiscal austerity. Letting nature do the work for us would obviously be less expensive, even ecologically preferable, but the proliferation of homes in fire-prone landscapes has made fire suppression an imperative across much of the West.


Data on thinning comes from this report, part of a cooperative effort between the Interior and Agriculture departments. The information on prescribed burns and wildland fire use are from the National Interagency Fire Center.

This story from HowStuffWorks has a good discussion of the three key factors that explain fire behavior.

The Yarnell Fire disaster has generated some solid coverage of the wildfire issue. See this piece by Felicity Barringer of The New York Times on the rising number of homes in the WUI and this op-ed in the Arizona Republic by Don Falk of the University of Arizona. I’m quoted briefly in this story by Amanda Paulson in the Christian Science Monitor.


Download Slides: Wildfire FuelsDownload Slides: Wildfire Fuels (10.96 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Wildfire FuelsDownload Notes: Wildfire Fuels (1.43 MB pdf)
Download Data: Wildfire FuelsDownload Data: Wildfire Fuels (344.64 kB xlsx)

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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.