Tag Archives: statistics

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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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.