Wildfires burned across 10 million acres in 2015

Feds spend more than $2.6 billion on fire suppression

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Wildfire activity surged in 2015. Graph courtesy NIFC.

By Bob Berwyn

For the first time in the era of modern record-keeping, wildfires burned across more than 10 million acres in 2015, mainly due to a series of large fires in Alaska.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there were more than 50 fires that exceeded 50,000 acres, and 20 fires exceeded more than 100,000 acres. The fires destroyed more than 4,500 homes and other structures and killed 13 wildland firefighters.

The big wildfire season came after two-year lull, when the total wildfire footprint stayed below 5 million acres. For the last years, the average now stands at about 6.6 million acres.

The uptick in fires is no surprise to experts, who have been warning that global warming will result in bigger burns. Alaska, for example, reported its second-warmest year on record in 2015. Since 2000, fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildland fires has increased.

In 2013, scientists linked a spate of massive Siberian wildfires with a “stuck” weather pattern associated with global warming. Overall, scientists say, those links are becoming more clear. It’s also clear that forests will have a more difficult time rebounding from fires as temperatures warm.

The 2015 fires stretched across federal, state and private land with Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington being especially hard hit.

The cost of the Forest Service’s wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity in August. With a record 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget dedicated to fire suppression activities, compared to just 16 percent in 1995, the Forest Service’s firefighting budget was exhausted in 2015, forcing the transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires, in order to cover the high cost of battling blazes.

“These fires have very real human costs, as we lost seven members of the Forest Service firefighting team in the line of duty, and 4,500 homes were lost,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We take our job to protect the public seriously, and recently, the job has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts, and a constrained budget environment in Washington,” Vilsack said, calling on Congress to fix the fire budget. “Failing to do so will result in more deadly and devastating fires in the future,” he said. “While the news that more than 10 million acres burned is terrible, it’s not shocking and it is probable that records will continue to be broken.”

Vilsack said the Forest Service spent more than $2.6 billion fighting fires while ransacking the rest of the agency’s budget.

 

“That is why last month I directed our staff to end the practice of fire borrowing and slow the consuming growth of fire as a percentage of the Forest Service budget and, instead, ensure that all resources in the 2016 budget are spent in the manner intended, such as the important forest restoration work that helps to minimize wildfires in the first place,” he said.

The Obama Administration proposes that Interior and the Forest Service be able to access a discretionary disaster cap adjustment after the amount spent on fire suppression exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average.

Fire experts and scientists caution against reading too much into year-to-year comparisons. The best way to understand the potential threat of wildfires is with a nuanced view, cognizant of the many different ingredients in the wildfire recipe.

This year’s decline in wildfires shouldn’t be seen as a long-term downturn, but more of a weather-induced temporary lull, said Tania Schoennagel, a wildfire expert with the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Weather during the fire season is all-important. Even a forest filled with beetle-killed trees and dry brush can’t burn if it’s wet, Schoennagel said.

Wildfires could get even bigger in coming years if droughts and heat-waves increase as projected by most climate models. Under the right conditions, wildfires could double dramatically from the current average, to 12 million to 15 million acres annually, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell warned Congress last year.

The general upturn in fire activity since about 2000 is obvious and well-documented, said Ed Delgado, head of predictive service for the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center.

“Every year, some areas have been seeing their largest fires ever. Colorado 2 years in a row, New Mexico and Arizona, where the 2011 Wallow Fire burned across more than half a million acres, 841 square miles,” he said. “You have to put it all into perspective. There are a lot of reasons you have the really big record-breaking fires, but it’s hard to put your finger on any one reason.”

Delgado said there’s a lot of talk about climate versus the weather when it comes to fire, but emphasized it’s the actual weather event when the fire starts that “determines how big, how fast the fire will grow.”

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