In fact, 2015 has been the worst year on record for wildfires in the United States. To date, more than 11 million acres have burned in wildfires across the country since January 1, 2015, as reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). TO put it in perspective, 11 million acres is about the size of Massachusetts and Vermont combined.
The scary thing is that it wasn’t just concentrated in the hot summer months, but 250,000 acres are still burning in wildfires well into October, including four new fires that have sparked to life since October 1. In particular, the western United States has been engulfed in flames at a record rate, with significant fires in California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, and Alaska.
Here are some notable facts about wildfires:
1. With this year’s record 11 million acres burned, 2015 enters a dubious group. In fact, more than 8 million acres burned only six other years since the NIFC started tracking data in 1960: 2012, 2011, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004.
2. Every year in the U.S., an average of 1.2 million acres burn in uncontained or wild fires. But the instance and severity of wildfires has grown exponentially worse in the last decade and a half because of draughts, and climate change from global warming.
3. Whenever our national wildfire preparedness level is 5, like it has been most of the summer and fall of 2015, Our Forest Service spends $100 million per week fighting fires. With record blazes in 2015, this will be the first year that the Forest Service spends more than 50% of its total budget fighting fires.
4. We know them simply as wildfires, but fire fighters, scientists, and firefighting professionals also refer to them as wild land fires, surface fires, forest fires, dependent crown fires, spot fires, running fires, or ground fires.
5. Wild fires certainly aren’t typically started with wild conditions in nature. In fact, 90% of all wildfires are started by people.
6. Human beings commonly start fires either intentionally from arson, or unintentionally through carelessness or a disregard for safety and precautions. That could mean a still-lit cigarette butt, a campfire that emits embers, or sparks from train exhaust.
7. The other 10% of wildfires that are not started by humans are either combusted after lightning strikes, or lava in fewer cases.
8. It’s estimated that Lightning strikes hit the earth an astounding 100 times each second, or 100,000 times a day.
9. With temperatures up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the surface of the sun - up to 20% of all lightning strikes have the potential to initiate a fire.
10. Weather and wind patterns contribute to many wildfires, but some fires are so big, they actually change the weather. Huge wildfires produce their own wind, which in response feed it more oxygen and further strengthen the blaze. In fact, a large enough wildfire can generate winds up to 120 mph, as strong as in a hurricane.
11. Of course wind is also the enemy of firefighters because strong winds not only feed oxygen to fires but push flames toward new fuel sources as well as spread burning embers and sparks that start new “spot” fires.
12. Wildfires usually end up with names made popular in newspapers and on the TV nightly news, but who comes up with the names? Usually first responders will name a fire, basing it on a nearby feature like a meadow, creek, city, or type of plant they see.
13. Prolonged draughts, like the one in California, contribute tremendously to the risk of wildfire because dead matter like leaves, twigs, fallen trees, brush, etc. become devoid of any moisture and therefore extremely susceptible to alight. With the right conditions and hot enough temperatures, fires can even break out by spontaneous combustion.
14. The worst wildfire in U.S. history is referred to as The Great Fires of 1871. During the week of October 8-14 that year, four of the worst fires in the history of the nation all blazed at the same time in the Upper Midwest, including The Great Chicago Fire which destroyed or damaged a third of the city’s buildings and homes, leaving 100,000 residents homeless.
15. But even worse that week was The Great Peshtigo Fire in nearby Wisconsin that ended up killing 1,500 people, making it the most fatal fire in U.S. history.
16. Of course they didn’t have modern technology and instrumentation to analyze the cause of the fires, but the consensus was that it was no coincidence that so many terrible fires broke out in the same region the same week. The prevailing theory was that a shower of meteorites falling to earth sparked the blazes, while others said it was unusual wind patterns that year.
17. The greatest fire in our nation’s history by area burned took place in 1910. Called the “Big Burn” or the Great Fire of 1910, the inferno burned 3 million acres across Idaho, Montana, and Washington. In response to that fire, the U.S. Forest Service was formed, with the mission to fight all wildfires.
18. Wildfires also cause monumental damage not only to forests and rural areas but encroach upon communities and homes. Here are the largest wildland fires losses (according to the National Fire Protection Association):
October 1918 - Cloquet, Minnesota: $35 million in 1918 dollars.
June 1990 - Santa Barbara, California: $273 million loss in 1990 dollars.
October 1991 - Oakland, California: $1.5 billion loss in 1991 dollars.
October 1993 - Orange County, California: $528 million loss tin 1993 dollars.
May-June 1998 - Florida: $395 million loss in 1998 dollars.
May 2000 - Los Alamos, New Mexico: $1 billion loss in 2000 dollars.
October 2003 - Julian, California: $1.1 billion loss in 2003 dollars; and San Bernardino, California: $975 million in 2003 dollars.
October 2007 - San Diego County, California: $1.8 billion in 2007 dollars.
November 2008 - Sacramento, California: $800 million loss in 2008 dollars
19. Each year, brave volunteers, fire fighters, and professionals from the Forest Service and other agencies fight these fires, making the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe.
Firefighter Wildland Fatalities:
(U.S Fire Administration)
20. To combat wildfires, the National Forest Service now uses modern technology and scientific methods. But all fire fighting or prevention still focuses on an old premise: The Fire Triangle. In fact, wildfires need three things to keep burning: heat, fuel, and oxygen. Without one of those, a fire will cease to burn, and so fire-fighting measures focus on cutting off one of those elements.