October 09, 2023

A Very Low Wildfire Year over the Western U.S.

 Being well into October and with a train of very wet weather systems approaching, we can be confident that most wildfire activity is over this year over the Northwest U.S.   There are no active fires over Washington State today.

The good news is that this was a very benign wildfire year for the entire U.S., in fact, the lowest wildfire acreage since 2000 (see below).  You will note little evidence of a long-term trend.


Here in Washington State, the Department of Natural Resources is responsible for a large proportion of the burnable area of the State.  2023 is running way below the average for acreage burned (red line is average).  Again, no obvious upward trend.

What about the biggest fire state of the western U.S.: California?  This year was the second lowest in ten years!  And last year was equally low.

And what about monthly particulate/smoke levels for the past five years?  According to Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, things are getting better!  Note the outlier during September 2020.

Do these numbers surprise you?   They are reality.  But if you follow the media and some activist groups, the wildfire threat is getting worse very quickly, with global warming being the major cause!  

Of course, there is no group that exaggerates wildfire threats more than the Seattle Times and their cartoonist, David Horsey (see below).   I do wonder why his wildfire monster wears sunglasses.


You should not be surprised that the wildfire threat has stayed tame over the last few years and probably won't accelerate during the years ahead.

Let me give you several reasons:

1.  Global warming for all the hype and exaggeration is quite modest at this point....the western U.S. has warmed up by roughly 2F over the past half century with very little change in precipitation.  Not enough to profoundly alter the fire situation.

2.  The areas that have burned during the past decades will enjoy suppressed fire potential for a while.

3.  Many of the wildfires in the western U.S.  during the past decade were caused by failing electrical infrastructure.  After severe impacts on their bottom lines, many power companies (like PG&E) are hardening their powerlines and turning off power when strong winds are predicted.


4.  After much delay or insufficient efforts,  states are getting more serious about restoring forests, using approaches such as thinning and prescribed burning.  This reduces the potential for catastrophic fire.

5.  Fire management policy changes allowed more fires to burn in previous decades and contributed to more fires and smoke.

The bottom line is that all the scary talk about rapidly rising wildfire threats in our future is really not based on solid facts, and reality is going a different way.  

How many other scary and unfounded predictions have gone viral in the public space?  That communists were taking over the universities and government in the 1950s?  That Vietnam was a domino requiring intervention?  That weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Iraq?    We seem to love believing in apocalyptic predictions, whether or not factual information supports them?


21 comments:

  1. Cliff, any chance of clear weather in Oregon for the eclipse?

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  2. What about the nearby wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta? Obviously not in the USA, but closer to Puget Sound than western US locations like California.

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  3. I definitely appreciated the relatively low-smoke summer and early fall this year. It's interesting to see how much variability there is, year-to-year, in acres burned.

    This is a genuine question, but are there data available in a global scale for outcomes like acres burned? The strongest test of any hypothesized increased in fire behavior would be to examine trends across the world.

    This report (link below) tries to do essentially what I suggest above, and the data they have appear to show an increase in fire behavior, but the magnitude of effect is qualified by forest type: https://news.mongabay.com/2022/08/forest-fires-are-getting-worse-according-to-new-20-year-analysis/

    Curious to get thoughts on this. No agenda here - just interested in the science and better understanding wildfire impacts, both locally and on a global scale.

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  4. Detection and suppression techniques have likely changed as well. Can you really link JUST climate change to wildfire activity? How is the rest of the world doing as far as fires is concerned?

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    1. Drew...it turns out the global wildfire activity is trending down. I repeat, down...cliff

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    2. While that seems to be true for grass fires, forest fire activity and loss, especially in the northern boreal forests, have been increasing this century. Please show a source for your comment that fire activity has been decreasing, and in which habitats.

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    3. wxman.... fires in Canadian forests are DECREASING. If you don't believe me, look at the graphs and data at the office Canadian site:
      https://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/ha/nfdb
      ...cliff

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  5. I do agree with the theme of this post.
    However, there is a great deal of fuel in WA's forests and invasive grasses are a problem.
    As a Washington Trails Association (WTA) volunteer I have worked on trail building and maintence at many places in our State. When WTA crews brush-out or log-out a trail the debris stays nearby. We do hide some of it, but it doesn't go far.
    Now, I'm not able to do the hiking and work, but you can volunteer and go on a day or week-long work party.
    See the fuel. :)

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  6. Cliff, I love your stuff, but please, you gotta get past this view that thinning forests reduces fire risk. It does not. It opens up previously shaded places to drying sun and wind and makes things worse. Thinned forests in last year's Bolt Creek fire near Skykomish, full of dry slash, were what led to that fire's big blowup.

    Sure, careful thinning but mostly, clearing up flammable dead material, works wonders in areas immediately around houses. But backcountry thinning just makes everything worse. And it all starts growing back the minute you walk away from it. This has been well known for over 20 years. Yet thinning projects bring in budget money for the US Forest Service, so of course they continue to do it, despite overwhelming evidence that it does far more harm than good.

    Defensible space, yes! Backcountry forest thinning, no!

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    1. You need both...thin the forest and get rid of the slash etc. There is a deep literature and and practical experience that thinning is important, often in concert with burning off the light fuels between the trees. You need both.

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    2. Snoqualman, that is simply an untrue statement. I would love to see your sources. While I acknowledge the fact under story may become be somewhat "drier", with these overgrown forests with canopies that block rain from reaching the bottom, stacked dead fall still becomes quite dry and the fuel loading causes it to burn hot enough to dry and ignite wetter materials. Experiment for you, make a campfire, stack two logs either side with some dry grass and smaller dead material between and another with more logs closer together, say 6 since our forests about 3 times as thick as should be, and put dry material even small wet material between and light both see what happens. More to fire than dryness. A concept that can save homes by making intensity less is same in forests too by reducing fuel load. Our forests are no longer natural. Look at DNR studies. Finally I agree, state and federal agencies need to pay more for logging timber blocks and make in contract rehab, piling debris, and burning rather than taking decades to decay.

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    3. Oh one last thing, also need to spend more money on rehab where fires burned planting native species rather than invasive ones taking back over.

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  7. Cliff, Please post data on the acreage burned on the planet over the last several decades. In addition, post data on the temperatures at which these fires have burned over the past several decades. This might facilitate a more robust and informed conversation.

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    1. Here is plot of global wildfire emissions:
      https://atmosphere.copernicus.eu/copernicus-extreme-wildfires-europe-south-america-and-north-america-2022
      It has declined....

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    2. The report you referenced above states that the decrease seems tied to the decrease in savannah fires, but that in most forest areas of the world, fire loss is increasing and they highlighted 2022 as a season of large loss globally in forest areas, not to mention what has happened this year.

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  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  9. So the temperature has increased 2 degree F in last 50 years. Any explanation why? Interestingly, this increase follows predictions made 50 years ago by those who believe CO2 levels influence temperature. What of the future if CO2 continues its increase? Is there anything to be done to prevent this? What do you suggest? And I too note that 50 years ago in the Northwest we didn’t have yearly smoke pollution from fires. Why now?

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    1. I think a lot of what you remember is during a time when fires were fought more aggressively and put out in short matter. FIRE ORDERS was an acronym when I started and the F in Fire was for "fight fire aggressively" and the last S in ordereds was for safety. Now it is 10 standard orders where safety is #1. Which means if no loss of life or infrastructure is present they let it burn more until can safely engage. Which is good, but has that side effect of longer burning fires or monitoring small fires until they become a problem. For example of response the Entiat Burn of 1970 (around 50 years ago) 122,000 acres burned when lightning sparked 200 fires and they merged, response from USFS was 8500 firefighters. The Carlton complex of 2014 over 250,000 (one of biggest in history) acres only saw a little over 3000 firefighters on it. Different times.

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    2. The fires listed under the Entiat fire of 1970 were mostly separate fires that did not merge. The The Gold Ridge fire was separate from the fires that burned farther up the Entiat River and the Mitchell Creek fire burned on the north side of Lake Chelan, whereas the other fires were south of the lake. Also, these were primarily forest fires while the Carlton Complex was made up largely of grass and brush country with just fringes of forest. The 1970 fires required several separate fire camps and overhead teams which may be one reason why there was more personnel on these fires, while the Carlton fire was mainly one large grass/brush fire.

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  10. Why did you stop your US fire plot at year 2000? If you go back to the 80's and 90's, there is a dramatic increase in acreage burned per year in the past 2 decades compared to before that. Source: https://www.nifc.gov/fire-information/statistics/wildfires

    It has stabilized since 2000.

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    Replies
    1. Because that is how far the data went on the webpage. If you went back 100 years there used to be far more fires and more acreage burned...

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