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2016 Wildfire Season Not Likely to Top Record-Setting 2015 Season

Trajectory Shows Fewer Fires and Fewer Total Acres Burned in 2016

Tom Jeffery    |    Natural Hazard Risk

In 2015, the amount of area consumed by wildfires in the U.S. topped 10 million acres for the first time, recording an annual total of 10,125,149 acres burned according to the National Interagency Fire Center.1 By comparison, the average burned acreage per year over the previous 20 years (1995-2014) was 5,820,402 acres.1 As of October 21, 2016, there were 4,989,330 acres burned in the U.S. and the total number of wildfires so far in 2016 is about 26,000 fewer than the 20-year average of 76,429.1 It is clear that barring the most catastrophic wildfire event in recent history, the yearly totals for 2016 will probably be at or slightly below average in terms of number of fires and wildfire acreage, and will almost certainly fall well below the record set in 2015.

It is also clear that it does not require a record-setting year in order for wildfires to cause substantial property loss. The losses for individual fires so far in 2016 are not of the same magnitude as the 1,955 structures lost in the 2015 Valley Fire or the 921 structures destroyed in the September 2015 Butte Fire,2 but that provides little comfort to the homeowners who have experienced wildfire damage this year. The Erskine Fire burned 386 structures northeast of Bakersfield, California this past June and 318 structures were destroyed in the Blue Cut Fire north of San Bernardino in August.2

Does this mean that the wildfire activity in 2015 was an anomaly that is unlikely to be repeated? The answer is most certainly no. In fact, as seen in Figure 1, seven of the previous 12 years (2004-2015) totaled more than 8 million acres burned. The cyclical nature of wildfire activity tends to result in a mixture of lower and higher activity years over a given span of time. But wildfire burned acreage statistics do indicate an increasing trend in burned acreage. So while the lows are not necessarily getting lower, the higher acreage years do appear to be showing an increase based on annual totals. Like all natural hazards, it is not possible to predict the specific date or magnitude of these events, much less the annual totals, but overall trends for wildfire activity seem to indicate an increase in acreage, even though there is an apparent decline in the number of fires.

The cause of these trends is often difficult to determine, and this is especially true for a hazard such as wildfire that can occur due to naturally occurring ignitions as well as both intentional and unintentional human-caused ignitions. However, it is well documented that at least some of the blame can be attributed to the ongoing drought in parts of the western U.S. which is providing an increased volume of readily available fuel. While all vegetation is considered a fuel to some degree, the accumulation of dead and dry material due to the prolonged extreme drought conditions serves to increase the opportunity for ignition as well as contribute to an increase in fire intensity.

Alternatively, the drop in the number of fires could be the result of several factors. In recent years, homeowners have taken on an active role to mitigate the risk of wildfire to their property. This reduces the opportunity for fires to start and, more importantly, minimizes the ability of the fire to ignite the homes. The Firewise Communities program is an example of a successful effort to educate and involve property owners in effectively minimizing the risk in their communities.

In addition, the emergency personnel response to wildfire ignitions is nothing less than phenomenal. The amount of effort expended on preventing fires from growing out of control, especially the effort of ground and air crews to divert fires from encroaching upon cities and communities, has certainly reduced the number of large scale and potentially damaging wildfires.

But it still must be emphasized that there are more than 1.8 million homes in the western U.S. at an elevated risk of wildfire damage. Since even a small wildfire can potentially cause property damage, the concern should not be misplaced as only applying to years in which we see record numbers of wildfire acreage. Each year brings wildfire activity and any home that is at risk must consider that threat. With annual wildfires often totaling more than $1 billion in property damage in the U.S., it is imperative to understand the level of risk for your property and prepare for the threat—even if it is not currently a record-setting year. 3

Sources:

  1. National Interagency Fire Center, 2016.
  2. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Cal Fire, 2016.
  3. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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