Published on November 2, 2015.

The Year in Wildfire

A historic number of acres burned, record-setting fires in Washington State, and more: six big takeaways from the 2015 wildfire season. BY JESSE ROMAN

1. This year could set a record for the number of acres burned.

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The 2015 fire season got off to a fast start as huge wildfires burned millions of acres in Alaska in the spring, and continued with large wildfires in California and the Pacific Northwest in the summer and fall. Even with at least a month to go in this year’s fire season, including Southern California’s dangerous Santa Ana fires that occur in the fall, 2015 ranks among the largest seasons on record in terms of number of acres burned. As of October 30, an estimated 9,407,571 acres have burned in the United States in 2015, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The season already ranks as the fourth highest since reliable records began in 1960, behind 2007 and 2012, when about 9.3 million acres burned, and 2006, when an all-time high of nearly 9.9 million acres burned. Experts say that 2015 could surpass those totals, depending on what occurs over the next couple of months.

A firefighter monitors burnout operations at a wildfire in Idaho in August.
​A firefighter monitors burnout operations at a wildfire in Idaho in August. ​Photograph: United States Forest Service/Newscom

Interestingly, though the number of acres burned so far this year is well above the 10-year average, the total number of fires is down, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Through October 8, there had been just over 51,000 wildfires in the U.S. The 10-year average through the same time period is about 60,500 wildfires.

2. Alaska has become an indicator of the impact of climate change on wildfires.

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Fire has been a natural and necessary occurrence in Alaska for millennia, but some scientists believe that factors related to climate change are resulting in more large fires that move faster and burn more intensely. Fires may even exacerbate the climate-change problem itself.

“It took 40 years to burn 25 million acres, and the next 25 million acres took less than 25 years to burn,” said Scott Rupp in a recent press release issued by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Rupp, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and university director of the Interior Department’s Alaska Climate Science Center, takes a long view of the state’s wildfire situation and is concerned by what he’s observed over the past 20 years. “What sets this fire season and the last two decades apart from the historical record is the growing number and frequency of large fire years we are having in Alaska.”

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Smoke rises from the Bogus Creek Fire in southwest Alaska in June. ​Photograph: Alaska Division of Forestry/AP Wide World

Low snow totals and record-high spring temperatures created an unusually dry landscape in Alaska this spring and summer. Those conditions contributed to the state’s significant 2015 wildfire season, where about 5.1 million acres burned. Only Alaska’s 2004 fire season, where nearly 6.6 million acres burned, was larger.

Snow cover insulates and moistens the landscape, helping to keep fires in check. However, Anchorage had the lowest snow total on record last winter, according to the National Weather Service—the lack of snow even caused the start of the iconic Iditarod dog sled race to be relocated for only the second time in 43 years. In addition, winter temperatures in Alaska have increased six degrees over the last 60 years, twice as fast as the rest of the nation, according to the National Climate Assessment.

Warming conditions and reduced snow cover have also sped up the melting of Alaska’s permafrost, the carbon-rich soil locked in a perpetual freeze beneath the surface layer. Big fires make the permafrost melt faster, releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

“In a big fire year, like 2004 or what’s happening now, about 0.2 percent of the carbon stored in Alaska is released,” Dave McGuire, a research scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in the USGS release. “The carbon released from fire emissions during a large fire year in Alaska is roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the global fossil fuel and land use emissions.”

3. ​The U.S. Forest Service is hamstrung by increasing fire suppression costs.

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In a blistering report released in August, the U.S. Forest Service warned that the rapidly growing cost of combating the nation’s wildfire problem has become “a significant threat to the viability of all other services that support our national forests.”

At least in terms of time and money, the Forest Service seems already more of a de facto national fire agency than a fully functioning steward of the nation’s forests and grasslands, as its mission claims. In fiscal year 2015, the Forest Service spent 52 percent of its roughly $5.1 billion budget on wildfire suppression, preparedness, and programs—the first time in the agency’s 110-year history that fire costs accounted for more than half of its budget. By comparison, wildfire-related expenditures made up just 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995. Left unchecked, the agency estimates that by 2025, two of every three dollars Congress allocates to the Forest Service will be used to cover wildfire-related costs.

The dramatic rise in the cost of wildfire is also reflected in staffing levels. In 1998, the agency employed 5,700 people dedicated to fire issues. In 2015, the Forest Service had about 12,000 fire-related employees, including about 10,000 professional wildland firefighters. During the same period, the number of staff dedicated to managing National Forest System lands has fallen from about 18,000 to fewer than 11,000, the report said.

The report points to rising temperatures, drought, the accumulation of “unprecedented levels of vegetative fuels,” and greater development within the wildland/urban interface as factors escalating the intensity and cost of wildfire suppression. As a result, the typical fire season lasts on average 78 days longer now than in 1970, and the six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all come since 2000.

Meanwhile, “the Forest Service is expected to absorb those costs into its regular budget, which remains relatively flat,” said Tom Vilsack, who as U.S. Agriculture Secretary oversees the Forest Service. “This means that every year, fire grows as a percent of the agency’s budget, while all other programs shrink.”

Firefighters organize at the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest in Washington in August.  The state experienced its worst wildfire season on record.
​Firefighters organize at the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest in Washington in August.  The state experienced its worst wildfire season on record. ​Photograph: Kari Greer/Newscom

In many years, wildfire suppression costs exceed what was budgeted, forcing the Forest Service to transfer even more funds from already depleted areas. These “fire transfers” have totaled $700 million so far in 2015, supplementing the already more than $1 billion the Forest Service had allotted to fight fires. Congress often replenishes the budget with supplemental funds after the fact, but the disruptions the transfers create are problematic, the study said.

The impact of these rising fire costs is seen across the board at the Forest Service. For instance, funding for the agency’s roughly 44,000 recreational, research, and administrative facilities has decreased 68 percent since 2001. Forty-one percent of the administrative facilities are in poor condition and need major repair or renovation, the report found. Overall, Forest Service assets now have a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $5.1 billion, the report said. Since 2001, spending on wildlife habitat management, which includes efforts to save threatened and endangered species, has been reduced 18 percent; road maintenance spending has been slashed 46 percent; and land management planning has been cut 64 percent.

“To solve the problem, Congress must change the way it pays for wildfires,” Vilsack said. “Any solution must confront both parts of the funding quandary: It must limit or reverse the runaway growth of fire programs as a percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget, and it must address the compounding disruption of fire transfers.”

There are two bills in Congress that aim to address the problem. The first, called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, proposes paying for excess wildfire expenses using federal disaster money, the same way tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters are dealt with. This would effectively end fire transfers. President Obama suggested a similar track in his proposed 2016 budget.

Another proposal, the Resilient Federal Forests Act, passed the U.S. House in July but has met with resistance from the Obama Administration. The law would ease environmental oversight of forest management, expedite forest projects, make it more difficult to file legal challenges against proposed forest projects, and establish a fund to pay for wildfires if normal funding runs out.

Supporters say the law addresses both wildfire and the underlying problems, because sped up environmental reviews would enable more land maintenance and prevention work. “Scientific thinning prevents forest fires,” the bill’s author, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican, said on the House floor in September. “We must change the way wildfire response is paid for, but we must also focus on prevention.” Opponents, which include environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, believe the law is a thinly veiled effort to allow unfettered logging “and would short-cut vital environmental reviews and public involvement.”

No action has been taken on either law as of press time.

4. California sees yet more record-setting wildfires.

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While not as massive as other 2015 wildfires, Northern California’s Valley Fire and Butte Fire ranked among the costliest and most damaging in state history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Combined, the fires burned thousands of structures, resulting in nearly $2 billion in property damage, according to a report released in October by insurer Aon Benfield. At least four people died in the Valley Fire and at least two were killed in the Butte Fire.

By the time it was contained in early October, the Valley Fire had burned more than 76,000 acres and destroyed 1,958 structures, the third most of any California wildfire, behind only the 1991 Tunnel Fire in Oakland Hills (2,900 structures) and the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County (2,820). The Butte Fire ultimately destroyed 818 structures, the seventh most destructive fire in state history. According to the Aon Benfield report, the Valley Fire resulted in at least $1.5 billion in total economic loss, while the Butte Fire totaled at least $450 million in total economic loss. The Tunnel Fire remains the costliest California wildfire, totaling $2.67 billion (adjusted for inflation) in property damage.

The aftermath of the Valley Fire in northern California in September.
​The aftermath of the Valley Fire in northern California in September. ​Photograph: NOAH BERGER/Corbis

Even for veteran fire officials, the speed with which the Valley and Butte fires took off was extraordinary. The Valley Fire was reported at 1:20 p.m. on September 12 as a two-acre grass fire near Cobb Mountain, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Thirty minutes later, 911 calls began streaming in from trapped and frantic residents. Within five hours, the fire had grown to more than 10,000 acres and doubled again to more than 25,000 acres by 10:25 p.m., according to news reports. “I’m looking in all directions, and all I see is fire,” Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman told The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa the night the fire began. “This is unreal … This thing just blew up on us.”

The Butte Fire began three days earlier, on September 9, about 50 miles west of Sacramento. By that evening, the fire had grown from about 100 acres to more than 14,500 acres; aided by unseasonably high temperatures, it reached 32,000 acres just two days later. The Butte Fire burned about 71,000 acres before it was 100 percent contained in late September.

Exacerbated by a four-year drought, wildfires had burned more than 820,000 acres in California in 2015 as of mid-October, including about 538,000 acres in Northern California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That number will surely rise with the start of the Southern California wildfire season this fall.

History suggests the fall fires also have the potential to be very destructive. According to a study published in September in the journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers from the University of California and NASA concluded that the Southern California autumn wildfires driven by Santa Ana winds have been 10 times as costly in the past 20 years as summer wildfires, even though both types of fires have consumed about the same total acreage. Between 1990 and 2009, these fires were responsible for 80 percent of the $3.1 billion economic loss caused by major fires in Southern California, the study found.

Winter holds its own threat: Cal Fire predicts that areas burned by the Valley and Butte fires may be susceptible to mudslides and landslides triggered by winter rains.


5. Ranchers are feeling the hurt after fires destroy rangelands in the Northwest.

Ranchers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington are scrambling to figure out how to feed their cows and save their livelihoods after huge fires devastated much of the land their animals depend on for food.

According to federal data, nearly 2,600 square miles, or 1,664,000 acres, burned in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington in 2015—the vast majority of which is federally owned and used as rangeland for livestock grazing, the Associated Press (AP) reported. In Oregon’s Canyon Creek Complex fire, 125 of the 170 square miles burned were grazing allotments. Another 355 square miles of federal grazing allotments and private grazing lands burned in the Soda Fire in southwest Idaho, the AP reported. Between the Carlton Complex fire last year and this year’s even bigger Okanogan Complex fire, more than 1,040 square miles have burned in Washington State’s Okanogan County in the last two years, much of it grazing land, according to the Seattle Times.

Normally, cattle wander the vast expanses of pasture all summer and fall, grazing into October and as late as December. With the landscape now charred, ranchers must buy food for their cows, which can eat half a ton of hay a month. Hay costs $100 to $200 a ton, depending on quality, according to the Seattle Times. Many ranchers simply can’t afford it, and the only solution, killing off some of their animals, is also a significant economic hardship; it takes generations to breed cattle tough enough to withstand life on the open range, and it also costs the ranchers the calves those cattle would have produced.

Flames approach grazing lands during a wildfire in Washington in August.
​Flames approach grazing lands during a wildfire in Washington in August. Photograph: Ted S. Warren/Corbis

“It’s pretty hard to get rid of your lifetime’s work. They are not just cows to you,” Okanogan County rancher Gerald Scholz told the Seattle Times of his 1,400 cows and calves, part of a genetic line he’s been honing for two decades. “She’s done,” he said of his ranch. “I don’t know what I am going to do. It’s hard, when you worked your whole life for something and then you’re just broke.”

6. This year, it was fires in Washington State that generated some of the biggest headlines.

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After last year’s devastating Carlton Complex fire, which burned a record 256,000 acres, many considered 2014 to be Washington State’s worst wildfire season on record. 2015 seems to have topped it.

Huge, fast-moving wildfires erupted in the parched central part of the state this year, prompting firefighting reinforcements from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. military, and even many volunteers to help battle the blazes. Events such as the North Star Fire (218,000 acres), the Tunk Block Fire (166,000 acres), the Okanogan Complex fire (133,000 acres), and others collectively burned more than 1 million acres in Washington State in 2015. That’s nearly triple the 2014 total, when 387,000 acres burned. The state’s five largest fires in 2015 collectively burned nearly 762,000 acres—roughly 1,200 square miles—and consumed about 300 structures.

The fires also took the lives of U.S. Forest Service firefighters Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31. The men, members of an engine crew from Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, were fighting the Okanogan Complex in central Washington in August when their vehicle crashed and was overtaken by flames near the town of Twisp. Four other firefighters were hurt in the Okanogan fires.

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.  Jesse can be reached at jroman@nfpa.org. Top Photograph: Josh Edelson/Getty Images