Tag Archives: wildfires

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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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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Climate context for Colorado floods: heavy precipitation, wildfires are on the rise

The heavy rains and flooding here in Colorado have been off the charts, even prompting the National Weather Service to describe the precipitation as “biblical” in its proportions.

At Discover Magazine, Tom Yulsman reports that areas with the highest rainfall totals have experienced a 1,000-year event–a storm that’s expected to occur once a millennium. Check out this graphic from Climate Central:

Climate Central Boulder rainfall
Source: Climate Central

Because the flooding in Colorado is so extreme and generating so much attention, I wanted to offer some context by sharing some graphics and thoughts. Rain and snow totals jump around from year to year, but there seems to be an increasing trend of very heavy precipitation events in the United States.

What’s more troubling is that scientists are projecting even more deluges (and droughts) in the years and decades to come. Warmer air can hold more moisture, and higher temperatures will be increasing evaporation rates, so researchers are expecting extreme storms like the one in Colorado to become increasingly common as climate change manifests itself in the hydrological cycle.

Add the growing intensity of wildfires in the West, which in recent years have charred many of the watersheds that are now flooding along Colorado’s Front Range, and you have recipe for more costly, deadly disasters. I’ll leave it to scientists to sort out whether there’s any climate change fingerprint in this event, but the projections for the future are worrisome because warming is also expected to intensify wildfire behavior in the West.

Trend toward more deluges

The graphic below, from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, shows the percentage increases from 1958 to 2007 in the number of days with very heavy precipitation, which is defined as the wettest 1 percent of events (the original study is here). The trend has been especially pronounced in the Northeast.

Days with very heavy precipitation increasing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has two interesting charts on heavy rainfall trends. The first one shows that extreme one-day precipitation events have been rising in recent years, but there’s a ton of year-to-year variability. The orange line is a nine-year weighted average. EPA notes that “in recent years, a larger percentage of precipitation has come in the form of intense single-day events.”

Extreme one-day precipitation events

The second graphic shows what percentage of the contiguous 48 has experienced much higher-than-normal precipitation in any given year. The trend is more ambiguous in this chart, but there’s definitely been a spike in recent years.

Unusually high annual precipitationColorado in drought

Paradoxically, the torrential rains that we’ve been experiencing in Colorado have come while nearly all of the state is in drought. Below is the latest U.S. Drought Monitor for Colorado. It was released yesterday but based on data through Tuesday. It’ll be interesting to see what this map looks like next week.

Colorado drought monitor

Warming to worsen problem

Looking ahead, we can expect deluges like the one in Colorado to increase in frequency. “Global warming is expected to lead to a large increase in atmospheric water vapor content and to changes in the hydrological cycle, which include an intensification of precipitation extremes,” wrote researchers in this 2009 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Overall, the Southwest and places like the Colorado River Basin are expected to get drier, while the Pacific Northwest is projected to get wetter. Our climate deck , as well as posts on water risk/stress maps and the Colorado River Basin Study, have more on this.

The EPA and Union of Concerned Scientists provide good discussions of the impact of climate change on extreme precipitation events. Flooding causes billions of dollars in damage in the United States annually–in a typical year, it’s the most costly form of extreme weather–so the economic implications of this trend are significant.

In Colorado, the rains are finally letting up in most places and the worst appears to be over. We’ve only received about 3 inches here in Northwest Denver, but that’s actually a whopping total for us. Settlers used to call the western Great Plains the Great American Desert.

The American West has always been a region where residents must navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of drought and flood, but climate change is making those monsters more menacing. Thankfully, this once-in-a-lifetime storm for parts of the Front Range has only killed a handful of people, but that number could rise. The roar of the Black Hawk helicopter that just buzzed overhead and the stunning images of the flooding are stark reminders that this major disaster will be felt locally for years to come.

Post-fire flooding

There’s also a powerful connection between the worsening wildfire problem in places like Colorado and subsequent flooding, especially during summer, when the North American monsoon taps subtropical moisture and pumps it over the Southwest’s mountainous terrain. Wildfires can incinerate the vegetation that tempers the rainfall and keeps soil in place, thereby dramatically increasing the volume of runoff, sometimes with deadly results downstream. Along the Colorado Front Range, this threat has become a regular feature of the hazardous weather outlook that the National Weather Service publishes.

Climate change is expected to dramatically increase the amount of acres burned in the West, as shown in the graphic below from a recent Harvard study, so if business as usual continues with global greenhouse gas emissions, it looks like the ingredients will be in place for many more calamities like the one we’re now witnessing in Colorado.

Percentage increase in area burned
Source: Xu Yue, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences


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.