30 Years of Wildfires

Our personal interest in wildfires started when we visited Yellowstone National Park in the midst of their infamous wildfires of 1988. Once the Yellowstone wildfires got our attention, California wildfires kept it. This year (2021) has been bad, but last year was worse, at least for us. Some of our friends lost their ranch to wildfire, and we spent several days sheltered in place under an orange sky and with an Air Quality Index that at times went well over 300. Not good.

The linked article assembles some interesting data about the number and size of wildfires over the past 30 years in the US. The number of fires is tallied in the dark orange plot in terms of fires each year; the light orange plot shows total acreage burned each year. The extreme ups and downs in both plots shows that these are very noisy data, but noisy does not mean random. If you trust your eyeballs to see trends, it looks like the number of fires per year might be slowly going down and the acreage burned per year might be slowly going up. Fewer fires but larger fires, perhaps.

To nobody’s surprise, the article mentions climate change as an underlying cause for our wildfire problems. I say “no surprise” because in today’s political environment climate change is blamed for everything from droughts to terrorism. Haven’t seen climate change blamed for tooth decay yet, but not much surprises us anymore. Regardless, climate change probably does play a role in our “fewer but larger” wildfires, but it is certainly not the only factor, and perhaps not even the most significant.

In addition to climate change and drought, other factors include forest management (let fuel accumulate or not), fire management (fight fires or let them burn), electric transmission/distribution equipment and right-of-way maintenance (prevent electric lines from sparking fires), and even railroad right-of-way maintenance (sparks from railroad car brakes have started grassfires near Livermore). These are hotly contested (pardon the pun) topics, and have been for years. They hit the news in a big way in 1988 during the Yellowstone fires, as differences between National Park and National Forest fire management policies came to light. We have plenty of reasons to bug our elected representatives on policy issues, but if you want to add one more to the list, you can urge them to cut past the political hype, dispense with the smoke and mirrors (pardon this pun, too), and look for technically sound, practical understanding of these factors that influence each year’s wildfire season.

3 thoughts on “30 Years of Wildfires

  1. It’s interesting to note the number of active fire lookout stations in California today compared with 1970. It seems that politicians believe that the movement of population into formerly unpopulated areas has provided a replacement of the fire lookout stations for the early warning of wild fires. These politicians also depend on satellites whose altitudes of miles above the fire on fixed orbital paths. It seems to me that the facts of the past 50 years imply that rural residents have not provided an adequate substitute for the timely alerts of the fire lookout stations. Given the manpower to control an 800 acre fire, one wonders how much more effective that same manpower if employed before the fire reached 100 acres because of earlier reporting of a trained, professional watcher sited in a remote area. Of course, easy detection is only one of the measures to reduce forest fire damage. I highly recommend a book titled “Fire Season” by Philip Connors available in hard copy and ebook from Kindle.


      1. In his book, Connors, who worked in the Gila Wilderness located in New Mexico, wrote that his schedule was 10 24hr days on duty and 4 days off. The 4 days off were covered by college students who were temp employees of the U.S. Dept of Forestry.

        By the way, some vacated fire lookouts in Calif can be rented for backpacking camp sites.


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