Official Year-to-Date Wildfire Stats: Beyond the Rhetoric & Hysteria

This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. have burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems.
This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. have burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems.

With so much media and political attention focused on wildfires – and in some cases public lands management and calls to greatly increase logging on national forests by reducing public input and environmental analysis – it may be helpful to take a look at this year’s wildfire stats to see what’s burned and where.

Here’s a copy of the National Interagency Coordinator Center’s ‘Incident Management Situation Report’ from Tuesday, September 1, 2015.

• As of today, a total of 8,202,557 acres have burned in U.S. wildfires. In 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10 year (hot and dry) period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an AVERAGE of 30 million acres burned every year in the United States. Additionally, the 2001 National Fire Plan update indicates that an average of 145 million acres burned annually in the pre-industrial, conterminous United States.

[NOTE: Under the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies largely purged all records and information about wildfire acre burned stats from before the period of 1960].

• This year, 63% of ALL wildfire acres burned in the U.S. burned in Alaska, much of it over remote tundra ecosystems. According to federal records, since 1959 the average temperature in Alaska has jumped 3.3 degrees and the average winter temperature has spiked 5 degrees.

• Less than 8% of ALL wildfires that have burned this year in the U.S. have burned in the northern Rockies.

• National Forests account for ONLY 15% of all wildfire acres burned in U.S. this year.

• 88% of all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) acres burned in wildfires this year were in Alaska, again much of tundra, not forests.

This information is not meant to discount specific experiences communities, homeowners or citizens have had with wildfires this year, but just serves as a bit of important, fact-based information and context  regarding what land ownerships have burned and where they are located.

Again, this information is especially important in the context of recent statements (and pending federal legislation) from certain politicians blaming wildfires on a lack of national forest logging or a handful of timber sale lawsuits.

If politicians are going to predictably use another wildfire season to yet again weaken our nation’s key environmental or public lands laws by increasing logging (including calls by politicians like Montana’s Rep Ryan Zinke for logging within Wilderness Areas) then the public should at least have some facts and statistics available to help put the wildfires in context.

Finally, please keep in mind that right now the U.S. Forest Service has the ability to conduct an unlimited number of ‘fast-track’ logging projects on over 45 MILLION acres of National Forest nationally – and on 5 MILLION acres of National Forests in Montana. This public lands logging would all be ‘categorically excluded from the requirements of NEPA.’

UPDATE: Below is a chart showing annual hectares burned in 11 western states from 1916-2012 showing a very strong correlation between wildfire and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which is a robust, recurring pattern of ocean-atmosphere climate variability centered over the mid-latitude Pacific basin.

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29 thoughts on “Official Year-to-Date Wildfire Stats: Beyond the Rhetoric & Hysteria”

  1. Wow. Thank you Matthew. This certainly puts things in perspective.

    So how did we get here in the present state of skewed national dialog around public lands management?

    First and foremost, through the consolidation of mass media ownership (reduced to six corporations);

    Through the propaganda power achieved by controlling the outcome of “shifting baselines”:
    (“A shifting baseline (also known as sliding baseline) is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system.” (Wikipedia);

    Through the Machiavellian legacy of erasing historical references to control the dominant narrative in the media to achieve, “Manufactured Consent”:
    (Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is a 1988 non-fiction book co-written by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, wherein the authors argue that the mass media of the United States “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”.[1];(wiki);

    and the immense propaganda power of maintaining the dominant media narratives of public land management by news media repeatedly citing the manufactured consensus of collaborative theaters (largely brought about through the corporate capture of of both federal management agencies and environmental NGOs.)

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  2. Well, then, there is also about $250,000,000 worth of wildfires currently burning, here in California.

    As I said before in another thread, I am with you on this issue. It is partisan politics at its worst, when someone from the House can send anything they want to the Senate, without fear of it passing and having to work in the real world. Such bills are purely political fodder, supporting their “forbidden agenda”, or wish list, if you may. The easiest thing for a lawmaker to do is to throw money at a perceived problem (ie buy new engines, aircraft, etc). Sure, let’s fund firefighters but, we MUST have accountability, transparency and a true need. We should also be funding more fuels and forest resilience work but, that is more difficult to actually accomplish. Both extremes do not want a larger US Forest Service…. for different reasons.

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    • My view. Political Party Power is the driving force. Good-Bad-Ugly. Politicians are not technologically educated to deal with Physics-Biology-Chemistry/wildland on a technical basis in general. Why? Any solution may take 50 years of dedicated work – the art of correction is looking forward with a rear view at hand. Spotted Owl science is the good-bad-ugly that transferred physics into the political arena 1990’s.

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      • We have members of Congress clinging to one or more of the many conspiracy theories revolving around the Forest Service. Those members do not want to know the truth, even when it comes from experts. If Congress doesn’t fully understand or accept the truth of all of the Forest Service’s problems, then their plans for the National Forests will fail. I just don’t see much work getting done on the ground, under these new proposals. It won’t make a significant difference, for dry western forests, at this point.

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  3. “Finally, please keep in mind that right now the U.S. Forest Service has the ability to conduct an unlimited number of ‘fast-track’ logging projects on over 45 MILLION acres of National Forest nationally – and on 5 MILLION acres of National Forests in Montana. This public lands logging would all be ‘categorically excluded from the requirements of NEPA.’”

    Matt, so please help me understand where this statistic comes from. From everything I see in Regions 5 & 6 there is no such thing as a “fast tracked” project. Most of the activity seems to be arround CLFRP’s scattered around several National Forests, which require years of on the ground work, study & planning before they can put any significant projects across the goal line, if you will. While each CLFRP plan may cover several thousand acres to be worked on over up to 10 years, they cover 10 % each year.

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    • Hi Javier, The 45 million acres available for an unlimited number of ‘fast-track’ logging projects is via the most recent Farm Bill, Sec 8204 I believe. Thanks.

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    • Hello Don,

      As I mentioned in the original post, “Under the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies largely purged all records and information about wildfire acre burned stats from before the period of 1960.”

      Also, in the original post I linked to the 2001 National Fire Plan update, which indicated that an average of 145 million acres burned annually in the pre-industrial, conterminous United States. That 2001 National Fire Plan also included a bar graph on page 6, which clearly shows the large fire seasons of the 1930s.

      I can do more digging if you like regarding those late 20’s to late 30’s wildfire numbers, but it’s tough with the purge of that information.

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        • I believe it applies as one possible comparison, especially when it seems that every single year some people claim that it’s the ‘worst wildfire season ever.’

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      • hmmm. Data was purged. How convenient…. ANYHOW, so, according to the NFP of 2001, they ESTIMATE that 145 million acres burned on average between the years of 1500-1800. I find it hard to believe that anybody had that data especially since the western 1/2 of the U.S. was inhabited by Indians and small pockets of individuals. The Lewis and Clark expedition to MAP the West wasnt’ until 1804. The land that is now known as Alaska was not purchased until 1867 and Hawaii was annexed in 1897. Alaska is 424 million acres and Hawaii is 70 million acres. The current acreage of the U.S. is 2.3 billion. Subtract Alaska and Hawaii and you arrive at 1.8 billion. To put the 145 million acres in prespective, that means the total land mass of the Contintental U.S. burned 8% per year OR another way to look at it is the Entire land mass of the U.S. burned every 12 years. Given that mature timber matures to “harvest” level in 40-80 years, the U.S. for the most part would have been a barren wasteland.

        As far as your statement of 30-50 million acres per year between 1910 and 1930, I am not finding support in the 2001 document you have referenced. I see the chart on page 6, however, it only goes back to 1930 and it is taughting the 145 million acres. Then for some reason, dropped dramatically to 50 million in 2 years and has steadily dropped off since. After reading through this document, it seems as the data shows the opposite of what you are claiming here. It discusses air pollution and how decreasing wildfire improves wildlife survivability, vegetation growth, timber health and even improves human health and welfare.

        In closing I would like to point out another fact that you have neglected to take into account in your thesis. According to the 1800 U.S. Census, there were 5 million residents in the U.S. In 2010, there were 308 million. 308 million people suffering due to catastrophic wildfire. It is catastrophic when you actually see it in person. Lung cancer, increased asthma cases, heart issues due to low oxygen intake, etc, etc, etc.

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        • Hi Don, thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I suggest that you read what I wrote a little more carefully, and also check out that 2001 National Fire plan chart on page 6 a little more carefully too.

          For example, you write: “As far as your statement of 30-50 million acres per year between 1910 and 1930….”

          Problem is, I never wrote that. Here’s what I wrote:

          “In 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year and during the 10 year (hot and dry) period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an AVERAGE of 30 million acres burned every year in the United States.”

          If you look at that chart on page 6 more closely (I’m pasting it below here), you will clearly see that it shows that in 1930 and 1931 50 million acres burned. Furthermore, you can average out the time period, which goes back to 1930 (i.e. the second hash on the bottom row) and acres burned and easily see that an average of 30 million acres burned every year in the U.S.

          Besides, that’s not even the original origins of those statistics. Like I also wrote about, under the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies largely purged all records and information about wildfire acre burned stats from before the period of 1960. At one point the Forest Service had information going all the way back to 1900 in a chart, but I can’t find it anymore, except for the numbers we took directly from that now-purged chart.

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          • Hi Matt,
            I kinda share some of Don’s thoughts: even if “only” an average of 30 million acres had burned yearly in the 20s-30s (according to the 2001 National Fire plan chart), that would still amount around 600 million acres over 20 years.
            Considering that the total US forest area is roughly 750 million acres, and the time needed by forests to regenerate, don’t you think these figures (area burned at the beginning of 20th century) are suspicious?
            Thank you for your answer (long after your original post) and excuse my poor English (I’m French).

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            • Patrick: You’re assuming that an acre has to regenerate to forest before burning again. Not so. Lightning fires, in particular, tend to ignite in the same location repeatedly, i.e., the tops of ridges. These acres can burn every several years, which maintains their open grass/shrub condition. Similarly, the natural fire return frequency for low-elevation ponderosa pine forests is 3-5 years, which kept the forests thinned. The U.S.’s Great Plains (half-a-million square miles of grass savannah) burned every several years, or even annually, before it was converted to corn, wheat, soy beans and sorghum or grazed by cattle.

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              • Matthew.. I’m interested in your claim
                “Besides, that’s not even the original origins of those statistics. Like I also wrote about, under the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies largely purged all records and information about wildfire acre burned stats from before the period of 1960”
                I don’t remember that happening and I was working in DC then (and was in a carpool with fire people). Also it seems unlikely that any agency would be efficient enough to get rid of all those files. It looks like NIFC published some with the caveat that before 1983 the data were collected/analyzed differently https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_stats_totalFires.html ????

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                • The reality is that we only have reliable wildfire acreage data going back to 1992. Before that a mess of different reporting methods, lack of reporting from non-federal partners (local, state, etc.), double counting, etc. make the data murky at best. The USFS has spend a lot of time/effort trying to address some of those pesky data issues and their published data can be accessed here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/rds/archive/Product/RDS-2013-0009.4/

                  The 1983 date in the NIFC website corresponds to the launching of some of the 1st remote sensing satellites which would only pick up larger and longer duration fires.

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                  • Those pesky satellites are also lousy at picking up grassland fires because recovery is so fast that burned acres quickly drop out of spectral imaging. Grassland fires account for about 80% of the world’s annual burned acreage. Grassland fires are also some of the most economically destructive fires, e.g., 2017 Santa Rosa, 2018 Redding, 1991 Oakland Hills and 2003 San Diego. These fires have nothing to do with forest management.

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                    • Andy, the fires you mention may not have had much to do with the traditional forest management we think of when we consider national forests, but fuels-management, or the lack of it, was crucial. In the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, for example, non-native eucalyptus and Monterey pine were a large factor. Beautiful homes, beautiful trees, and a crown fire that then spread to homes and condos in the city that became fuel for more fire.

                    • Kevin and Andy …. so the NIFC burned acres are satellite data and only a subset of all fires? Is there a paper that talks about the weaknesses and strengths of using this methodology and alternatives?

                    • Sharon,
                      I don’t know what methodology the NIFC is using I was only speculating based on when Landsat4 was launched. Off the top of my head I don’t know of a paper that digs into the pro/cons of different methodologies.

                      The two methods I know of are:

                      1.) Direct reporting from the field that is published here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/rds/archive/Product/RDS-2013-0009.4/ (1992-2015) This product has all fires >0.01 acres and with information on what caused, if the fire was full suppression, Rx vs Wildfire etc. Lack of established records, various reporting methodologies, and data inconsistencies pre 1992 limit the the data to a 1992 start date.

                      2.) Satellite derived data that has all fires (in my experience MTBS does not have issues with picking up grass fires) from 1984-2016 that are greater then 1000 ac in the west and 500 acres in the east. https://www.mtbs.gov/direct-download. MTBS does publish fire severity data in addition to acreage and perimeters but there has been some recent publications that point to some potential issues with the severity methodology.

  4. Come on, Matt. Fast track? It’s all relative. Section 8204 does not exempt a project from NEPA, ESA etc… My unit is within a designated area and we don’t see any “fast track” on the horizon.

    Please cite one example of a fast tracked project that utilized this section of the Farm Bill.

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    • Come on Bob Frank. Yes ‘fast track’ logging. Ironically, that’s not the term I originally called it, I saw the media and some politicians who supported Sec 8204 calling it that.

      For the record, here’s what Sec. 8204 says:

      ‘‘SEC. 603. ADMINISTRATIVE REVIEW.
      ‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—Except as provided in subsection (d), a project described in subsection (b) that is conducted in accordance with section 602(d) may be—
      ‘‘(1) considered an action categorically excluded from the requirements of Public Law 91–190 [WHICH IS NEPA] (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.); and
      ‘‘(2) exempt from the special administrative review process under section 105.”

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  5. Another huge “mistake”, intentional or because of of ignorance or just poor reporting by the media, is the fact (that should be obvious to anyone thinking at all)that a significant portion of those burned acres are not commercial timberland at all. In the Okanogan watershed where hundreds of thousands of acres have burned, a significant portion is sagebrush/grass, or a mixture of sagebrush/grass/scrub woodlands in the draws or north-facing slopes. Mostly noncommercial forests.
    Farther south in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon most of the wildfires should be classified as “range fires” and reported separately from “forest fires”.
    So, maybe all these fires are not a result of “poor USFS forest management” after all??

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  6. I cannot believe that when ever we discuss poor management or lack of Management the discussion always focuses on timber harvesting ie. prepare more timber sales. Timber harvesting can be an effective tool when properly prepared and executed, but it’s only a tool and not the only tool available to the scientist. It’s like training a mechanic and then giving them a hammer and telling them to fix the engine. I totally agree that forest land management is inadequate and needs a major overhaul, but the answers lay in proper management that focuses on forest community health and diversity. Timber harvesting and all the various silvacultural techniques are tools to select from after a professional prescription with community goals and objectives have been prepared. We need publicly discussed and agreed on goals and objectives, scientifically prepared prescriptions and a full tool box of tools to select from. The focus must be on the science not the economics!

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    • Given the current budget, how are such non-commercial projects going to get funded and then awarded in a Service Contract? In essence, such projects have to be paid for twice. Once to prepare and monitor operations, and once to pay the contractor(s). Timber sales should be used only where there are excess trees that are valuable, to help pay for non-commercial treatments (keyword: excess). I do like stewardship contracts myself but, we also need to have some non-commercial thinning, in some areas where there isn’t enough timber to offset the costs. Of course, all the answers are somewhere in the middle. Some refuse to look there.

      Yes, sometimes a hammer CAN fix an engine. Anyone who has owned an old VW knows you can tap the solenoid with a hammer and the motor will again, run just fine.

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    • I guess you don’t need any logs for your mill.
      Still, I don’t how many of you have walk through a forest after a fire and experience the absolute devastation. I don’t understand why anyone would want to minimize the impact.
      Maybe some of the big fires are range land fires but there are several fires have done a pretty good job in Southern Oregon and Northern California of burning up tens thousands of acres of old growth on Forest Service land.
      (Why would the Bush administration care how many acres have burned? Is this some kind of conspiracy theory?)

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  7. FWIW, fire season isn’t over. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, “The seasonal fire outlook for September suggests conditions are favorable for continued wildland fire activity in Canada over southwestern British Columbia. In the United States, conditions are favorable for continued wildland fire activity across the eastern and central Interior of Alaska; all of Washington; northern and western Oregon; northern Idaho; northwestern Montana; and coastal mountains and the Sierras of southern California.”

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