Tag Archives: National Interagency Fire Center

A century of wildland firefighter deaths

[6/30/2013 UPDATE: see this post for more details on how the deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire rank historically]

I’m sorry to say that some wildland firefighters are likely to die in the coming months. Over the past decade, an average of 18 people have been killed each year while trying to suppress U.S. wildfires.

I’ve created a dashboard to track fatalities among U.S. wildland firefighters and put together a short presentation that you can download at the bottom of this post along with the data.

As we discuss in our fire slide deck, the Western wildfire season is getting longer and fires are burning more intensely in many places, so I was curious whether there had been an uptick in the number of firefighter fatalities. There is, in fact, a slight upward trend in deaths, but that may be due to an increasing number of firefighters deployed, rather than the job becoming riskier.

More than 1,000 killed

Wildland firefighting remains a dangerous business, with at least 1,030 people killed in the line of duty since the Great Fire of 1910 in the Northern Rockies. The government reports no deaths for the subsequent 15 years, which I’m assuming is due to a lack of data, and the most recent data available is from 2011.

Wildland firefighter deaths: 1910-2011

Cause of death

The most common way that wildland firefighters die is when they are overrun by flames. Such burnovers account for 42% of all deaths in the database, as shown in the pie chart below.

U.S. wildland firefighters killed: cause of death

The next leading cause is heart attack. Fighting fires by hand is grueling physical work and it’s not unusual to see wildland firefighters in their 40s or 50s. When not fighting fires, many work for land management agencies, such as the Forest Service, Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

The other trend that jumps out of this morbid data is the perils of driving and flying around wildfires. There were 288 fatalities related to airplanes, helicopters, and vehicles, or about 28% of the total.

Most deaths in West

Wildland firefighters have died in every state except Massachusetts. Eight of the top 10 states for wildland firefighter fatalities are in the West, with California leading the way by far.

U.S. wildland firefighters killed by state

The map below, from our dashboard, shows the geographic distribution of fatalities.

Wildland firefighter fatalities by state

Inherently dangerous work

I’ve been fascinated with wildland firefighting ever since I was certified, or “red-carded,” in 2002 by the Coronado National Forest, while I was reporting for the Arizona Daily Star (read more about my experiences embedding with crews in this piece for Powell’s Books).

Going through the training and spending a lot of time covering wildfires in the Southwest from 2002 to 2005 gave me the sense that safety is taken very seriously by fire managers and firefighters. But it was also easy to see how inherently dangerous the work is, especially once you add aircraft and fire engines to a dynamic environment that is often smoky, dark, and unfamiliar to the exhausted firefighters struggling to protect life and property.

Data sources

The National Interagency Fire Center maintains data on wildland firefighter fatalities on this page.


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.

Wildfire ignition trends: humans versus lightning

The Western wildfire season is well underway, so I thought this would be a good time to examine a key question: what causes wildfires?

Basically it boils down to two ignition sources—humans and lightning—but the balance between these two causes varies dramatically across the country. We have a dashboard on ignition that illustrates the data and I’ve created a PowerPoint presentation that you can download at the bottom of the post.

This graphic summarizes the national picture since 2001:

National wildfire cause

Two metrics: fires and acres

Over the past dozen years, more than 80 percent of all wildfires have been caused by people and that rate has been very steady. But if you look at the acreage burned, as opposed to the number of fires, humans are usually responsible for less than half the total.

Why the difference? Lightning-sparked fires in remote parts of the West and Alaska may get very large before they are contained; in some cases, these blazes are allowed to burn to reduce fuels. By contrast, many human-caused fires start in populated areas and are quickly controlled.

You can see the regional differences in the chart below, which shows what percent of fires were human-caused from 2001 to 2010. The regions are defined by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Regional wildfire cause

Back East and in California, humans are responsible for starting the vast majority of fires, whereas in the Great Basin, it’s less than 40 percent. This regional breakdown suggests that fire prevention programs will be more effective in some areas than others.

Explore data in our dashboard

Our wildfire ignition dashboard presents this information in a different way and allows you to interact with the data. The screenshot below shows the number of acres burned in each region:

Acres burned by region

There have been some huge wildfires up in Alaska and nearly all the acreage burned was due to lightning-sparked blazes. Conversely, human-caused wildfires predominate in the Southern area. In other regions, such as the Southwest, the situation is more variable. In some years, humans are responsible for the bulk of acres burned, but in other years most of the burning is due to lightning

The screenshot below shows the number of wildfires in each region. The Southern and Eastern regions, where the bulk of the nation’s population lives, have the greatest number of human-caused wildfires, but in places like the Great Basin, where relatively few people live, the vast majority of fires are caused by lightning.

Fires by region


The large number of lightning-caused fires out West should remind us that wildfires are inevitable in the region. Measures like campfire bans and public lands closures, which may succeed in cutting the number of human-caused fires, can only do so much.

This data also illustrates why it’s so important for us to get beyond national-level statistics when analyzing wildfires. Otherwise we end up lumping together lightning-caused blazes in the unpopulated Alaskan tundra and arson fires in the chaparral of suburban Los Angeles.


Data sources

The National Interagency Fire Center publishes data on the cause of wildfires on this page.

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.

Gauging wildfire severity with suppression metrics

The number of acres burned is the most common metric used for tracking wildfires, but there are other important measures for gauging the severity of the fire season.

The struggle to suppress wildfires is something that the federal government monitors very closely. For decades, it has been consistently reporting data on the army of firefighters deployed and the fleet of aircraft mobilized.

I’ve gathered the data on wildfire suppression in this dashboard and I’ve created a corresponding PowerPoint deck that’s available for download at the bottom of this post. In an earlier post, I discuss our fire trends dashboard, which tracks the number of fires and acres burned.

EcoWest wildfire suppresion metrics from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Preparedness levels

One way to examine historical wildfire activity is to look at how many days the federal government was operating under various preparedness levels. The National Interagency Fire Center uses five categories, similar to the now-abandoned Homeland Security threat levels. Preparedness level 5 is reserved for the most active times, while under level 4 the competition for firefighting resources is a bit less intense, and so on down to level 1, which is where we’re at now. It’s a little like the DEFCON levels that indicate the posture of American armed forces and show how close we are to a nuclear war.

The graphic below (click to enlarge) shows that preparedness levels vary greatly from year to year, but the 2000s were generally a busy time for wildland firefighters. In 2009 and 2010, however, the federal government never raised the preparedness level beyond 3.
wildfire preparedness

Firefighting resources

The federal government collects copious data on its deployment of firefighting resources and those figures are also barometers of wildfire activity. The graphic below (click to enlarge) shows some of the suppression trends. Type 1 helicopters are larger than type 2 helicopters, and type 1 mobilizations refer to the number of times that top-level incident command teams are deployed. Smaller, less complex fires are managed by type 2 teams. These categories tend to move together, but you’ll notice that the number of air tankers mobilized dropped around 2001—that’s because safety concerns over the aging fleet forced many planes to be grounded, even during some very active fire seasons.
wildfire suppression metrics
It’s hard to detect any long-term trend in these suppression metrics. The level of effort expended to fight wildfires could also depend on government budgets. But when I’ve compared these suppression numbers to the data on acres burned, they’ve lined up pretty well. The number of days at preparedness levels 4 and 5, as well as the deployment of firefighting resources, is higher in years with a lot of big burns and lower in years when there are fewer fires that demand a quasi-military response.

I’d be curious to hear what others see in these graphics and whether folks think these metrics yield any valuable insights.

Data sources

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise (which wildfire wonks pronounce “NIF-see”) is the go-to source for information on wildfires and suppression. I scraped data from NIFC’s annual reports to create these graphics and dashboards.


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.