Tag Archives: firefighting

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.


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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.