Tag Archives: NIFC

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.


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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.