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Could 2015 be the worst wildfire year on record?

On track for a big year, with more than 8 million acres already burned

Tom Jeffery    |    Natural Hazard Risk

One of the more difficult responsibilities for any hazard scientist is to predict what the future holds. Everyone is interested in knowing how many hurricanes will churn through the Atlantic, where the next earthquake will hit or where the next big fire will occur. Unfortunately there are no definitive answers to these questions, which forces us to rely on informed predictive research and educated assumptions. In the case of wildfire activity in the U.S., the last four years have brought about increasing concern regarding the potential for massive outbreaks of fires due to the prolonged drought that has affected the entire western half of the country.

During that time we went from an understanding that wildfires tend to be somewhat seasonal to the current consensus that wildfire activity in many areas of the west, especially in California, is now a year-round threat. Increased fuel loads due to the drought and conditions that favor wildfire activity have prompted discussion that every year could be the “big” year for wildfires. Both 2011 and 2012 saw 8.7 million and 9.3 million acres burned, respectively, which was thought to fulfill the prediction at the time since both figures were greater than the 6.6 million acres that burned on average each year from 2000 through 20101. But then in 2013 and 2014 the annual burned acreage dropped to 4.3 million and 3.5 million acres, respectively, well below the previous decade’s average1.

At the start of 2015, the number of fires and the amount of acreage burned began to climb. Record numbers of wildfires sprang up early in the year and continued throughout the summer. The acreage total climbed as larger fires developed. To date, there are currently nine active fires in the U.S. that are over 100,000 acres in size2. Alaska usually experiences the majority of these large wildfires, but of the current nine, only one is in Alaska. The other eight are in Washington (3), Oregon (2), California (2), and Idaho (1)2.

As acreage totals rise, so do the number of homes damaged. Most recently, the ongoing Valley and Butte Fires in California have destroyed a combined total of more than 830 homes and 140,000 acres3 (Figure 1). These numbers will only increase since both of the fires are less than 50 percent contained. With 603 homes already destroyed, the Valley Fire currently ranks ninth on California’s list of most damaging fires in the state3. As of this date, it hasn’t been contained so it could jump even higher on California’s top 10 list by the time of its completion.

With a little more than three months remaining in 2015, we are on track for what could be the greatest loss of acreage to wildfire. With 8,834,487 acres already burned as of September 16, this year ranks fourth in terms of total acres burned per year (according to records dating back to 1960), and it is clear that we still have not seen the end of this year’s wildfire activity1. There are still hundreds of active wildfires currently burning that range in size from just a few acres to a fire in Alaska which covers more than 330,000 acres2.

In terms of total acreage, 2006 was the most destructive year based on historic records, claiming 9,873,745 acres, followed by 2007 and 2012 with 9,328,045 and 9,326,238 acres burned, respectively1. This means that 2015, currently at 8,834,487, could easily jump ahead of at least 2007 and 2012, if not all three years, and top the list as most burned acres in a year. Figure 2 shows the 10 highest wildfire acreage years since 2000. Nine of these yearly totals rank as the highest amount of acreage of all-time, with only one year prior to 2000 (1963) ranking 10th on the all-time list.

10 most destructive wildfire years since 2000

10 most destructive wildfire years since 2000

Although wildfire damage is measured in terms of acres burned, it is important to remember that the loss of life and property in these wildfires is more important. When wildfire activity is high, the potential for property damage increases, and more responders and citizens are exposed to the dangers that wildfires pose. If 2015 does manage to top the list of most acreage lost to wildfire activity, it will not be a surprise to those living in the areas of the west that are suffering from the drought conditions which ultimately contribute to these fires. It is also important to remember that even after a record-setting year of wildfire activity, the risk for wildfire activity in 2016 does not decrease.

[1] National Interagency Fire Center statistics, 2015.
[2] InciWeb Incident Information System, September 16, 2015.
[3] Cal Fire statistics, September 16, 2015.

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