Total acres burned in U.S. wildfires, 1960-2017. Graphic: James P. Galasyn

11 February 2018 (Desdemona Despair) –  The year 2017 was the second-worst year for wildfires in the U.S., according to data published by the National Interagency Fire Center. Nationwide, wildfires burned a total 10,026,086 acres, just 99,063 acres shy of the record, 10,125,149 acres, set in 2015.

In December, 2017 was on track to be the third-worst year on record, but California’s deadliest fire season, which included the Thomas fire, California’s largest on record, pushed 2017 to the Number Two spot. All of the Top Ten wildfire seasons have occurred since 2000.

Year Number of fires Total acres burned
2015 68,151 10,125,149
2017 71,499 10,026,086
2006 96,385 9,873,745
2007 85,705 9,328,045
2012 67,774 9,326,238
2011 74,126 8,711,367
2005 66,753 8,689,389
2004 65,461 8,097,880
2000 92,250 7,393,493
2002 73,457 7,184,712

The situation was similarly dire in Canada’s 2017 wildfire season, when British Columbia suffered through its worst wildfire season on record, as 19 fires merged to create the largest wildfire ever recorded in B.C. 

Where is all of this leading? To ever-larger wildfires in North America. Simple linear and quadratic trends both project increasing wildfire sizes: the linear trend predicts that the average U.S. wildfire season by the year 2037 will burn nearly 8 million acres, and the quadratic trend predicts more than 16 million acres.

Total acres burned in U.S. wildfires, 1960-2017, with linear and quadratic trends projected 20 years into the future. Graphic: James P. Galasyn

In B.C. and California, fire risk increased because of a very wet spring that encouraged growth of fuels, followed by record-breaking heat later in the season, which dried them out. As the world warms, we can expect this cycle to intensify. The Thomas fire in California was notable both for its unprecedented lateness in the season and for the strongest and longest Santa Ana wind event of the year, which intensified the flames. In a decade or two, we may yearn for the time when the largest forest fires burned “only” ten million acres.

Data: U.S. area burned in wildfire 1960-2017.xlsx

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