The USGS Rolls Out a New Five Year Wildland Fire Science Strategy to Address Increasingly Devastating Fires

Three of the past four years have set wildfire records for acres burned, damaged and destroyed structures, and even deaths. To address the increasing risks to life, property, and the environment, the United States Geological Survey released a new strategy to use science, research, and technology to better address fire risks before, during, and after they happen. The Wildland Fire Science Strategy is a fire year plan that will guide USGS research to address the changing needs for the future of wildland firefighting.

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Satellite view of VIIRS Fire Activity in the Amazon Categorized by Fire Type

Fire Season in the Southern Hemisphere

Due to the difference in the seasons and in weather systems, the timing of fire season in the Southern Hemisphere typically varies compared to that of the U.S. Fall season in the Northern Hemisphere coincides with spring in the Southern Hemisphere. During fire season in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia experiences bushfires, while treacherous rainforest fires have affected the Amazon in recent years.

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Record Setting 2020 Wildfire Season- A look Back

2020 was a challenging year with many unprecedented events. The 2020 wildfire season wasn’t an exception with record setting fires across the country. NIFC reported that as of December 23rd, 2020 there had been 57,480 wildfires that have burned 10,357,138 acres. This is almost 4 million more acres burned than the 10-year average and more than double the acreage burned in the 2019 season.

Year-to-date statistics
2020 (1/1/20-12/23/20) Fires: 57,480 Acres: 10,357,138
2019 (1/1/19-12/23/19) Fires: 49,492 Acres: 4,576,827
2018 (1/1/18-12/23/18) Fires: 55,911 Acres: 8,582,609
2017 (1/1/17-12/23/17) Fires: 65,127 Acres: 9,563,128
2016 (1/1/16-12/23/16) Fires: 62,946 Acres: 5,437,875
2015 (1/1/15-12/23/15) Fires: 60,984 Acres: 9,937,863
2014 (1/1/14-12/23/14) Fires: 63,252 Acres: 3,585,569
2013 (1/1/13-12/23/13) Fires: 46,373 Acres: 4,306,944
2012 (1/1/12-12/23/12) Fires: 67,326 Acres: 9,208,193
2011 (1/1/11-12/23/11) Fires: 72,508 Acres: 8,642,298
2010 (1/1/10-12/23/10) Fires: 68,598 Acres: 3,379,874
10-year average Year-to-Date
2010-2019 Fires: 61,203 Acres: 6,712,681
Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

California First to Raise the Alarm

On March 22, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to critical fire weather conditions brought by dry conditions, near record heat, and a mass die-off of trees throughout the state. 

Wildfires in California burned a record setting 4.2 million acres with 5 of the states top 20 largest wildfires and 6 of the states most destructive fires occurring this year. The staggering number of acres burned are the most in a single year since CalFire began keeping records, and more than the last three years combined. These wildfires damaged or destroyed approximately 10,500 structures and killed 31 people. 

Source: CalFire

All but one of these record setting fires occurred during the “August Lighting Siege.” Over the course of 72 hours, more than 650 wildfires ignited across Northern California. Of these fires, the lightning caused August Complex became the first “giga fire”, burning over a million acres and shattering the previous record by nearly double the amount of acres burned.  

Record Setting Wildfire - Largest in California's History

Size Comparison – The August Complex Perimeter Repositioned Over the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area

Other States Suffered a Similar Fate

Other states experienced similar wildfire intensity. Almost 700,000 acres burned in Colorado during 2020, including the three largest fires in state history. 

The Cameron Peak Fire started on August 13 in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests west of Fort Collins. It became the largest in Colorado’s history after quadrupling in size over Labor Day weekend and making another aggressive run on Oct. 14, burning over 20,000 acres in one day. Before the fire was finally contained it had burned over 208,913 acres.

The East Troublesome Fire, the second-largest blaze in Colorado’s history, moved through some areas at as much as 6,000 acres per hour. The fire eventually consumed 193,812 acres and became the first fire to cross the continental divide.

In Oregon wildfires burned approximately 1 million acres of land, almost double the 10-year average of 557,000 acres. More concerning than the number of acres burned, the second most in state history, was the unprecedented destruction. Only 2 homes were lost to wildfires in Oregon in 2019. In fact over the course of the last 4 wildfire seasons Oregon only lost a combined total of 93 homes. The amount of homes lost in 2020 totaled more than the next 5 most destructive seasons combined, with 4,009 homes lost! 

Not to be outdone by its southern neighbor, Washington saw more acres burn in one day than it did in the entirety of the past 12 wildfire seasons. Some 80 fires ignited and burned through nearly 300,000 acres over Labor Day. This includes the Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires which combined to burn over 410,000 acres and become the largest in the state’s history. 

More of the Same in 2021

The last month of 2020 was a precursor of what is to come with several days of Red Flag Warnings for California. As 2021 nears, forecasters predict another year of large fires due to continuous climate change, persistent drought, and La Niña in regions prone to parched vegetation and climbing temperatures. It seems impossible to imagine that we could see records shattered like 2020 but if the past few years have proven, unprecedented wildfire seasons are the new normal.

Unusual Red Flag Warning Conditions Persist

As the year is coming to an end, it does not seem as though fire season is over. A Red Flag Warning and potential public safety power shutoffs continue to impact areas of Southern California. To many Southern California residents’ dismay, these unfavorable conditions could impact them during Christmas Eve.

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Tanker dropping fire retardant over Cameron Peak Fire

Firefighters Battle COVID-19 Along With Wildfires

Many “unprecedented” situations occurred throughout 2020, including wildfire season. In addition to the busy wildfire season, firefighters have also had to ensure their safety against COVID-19. Although crews took the necessary precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing, during fire response, coronavirus cases still popped up.

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How Cameras Benefit Fire Fighting Efforts

Have you ever wondered how fires are spotted or quickly confirmed before crews even arrive? The state of California has over 600 cameras that help! Previously, fire tower lookouts provided a necessary function for identifying and fighting new fires. Now, with the growth of technology, cameras throughout wilderness areas have helped firefighters and communities react quicker and smarter when fire emerges.

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fighting fire

Coronavirus Implications on Fire Response in 2020

Concern over fire response is growing as wildfire season approaches, and the coronavirus implications persist. Wildfire response is likely to be measured and conservative as public agencies too try to reduce the spread of coronavirus. A recent New York Times article suggests firefighters will still respond to wildfires, but a major cloud surrounds the logistics of it all.

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The Smokey Bear Story

Map of Ellwood Oil Fields Damaged by Japanese Shelling Off California Coast

Ellwood Oil Fields Where Japanese Submarines Attacked in 1942

During World War II, Japanese submarines off of the Santa Barbara Coast fired shells making an oil field explode near the Los Padres National Forest. This created a fear in Americans. People were concerned that wildfire could be used as a war tactic in the forests off of the Pacific Coast. The Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program was created to bring light to wildfire prevention by reducing the number of human caused fires. Eventually, this program led to the creation of Smokey Bear as an influential wildfire prevention icon. Smokey is now recognized by 96% of adults – a recognition rate that is comparable to that of the President and Mickey Mouse!

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10 Busiest Fire Stations in the U.S.

A 2018 survey by Firehouse Magazine identified the 100 busiest fire stations in the nation in terms of call volume. Using the survey, RedZone has mapped out the top ten. See the interactive map below for more details. Also, see 2012’s busiest fire departments in RedZone’s previous blog.

busy fire stations

Top Ten Busiest U.S. Fire Stations in 2018

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New South Wales Bushfires Rage On

The Bushfires in New South Wales (NSW), Australia are still burning. Officials have declared a state of emergency for the third time for NSW this fire season. The majority of the state is under a high to a very high fire danger rating with catastrophic conditions. There have been seventeen deaths reported across Australia, with most of them being in NSW. The bushfires have destroyed over 900 houses and 2,000 outbuildings.

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