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2015 wildfire season a record-breaker

Worst recorded years for U.S. wildfires are 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2012. This year has already joined that list, and wildfire season is still going strong.

Smokey sunset, August , 2015, from EarthSky community member Chris Levitan Photography.

Smokey sunset, August , 2015, from EarthSky community member Chris Levitan Photography in Oregon.

The 2015 wildfire season in the United States has already broken records. So far this year, more acres of land have burned as of mid-September than the total annual amount in 2011, which was the 4th worst year for wildfires at least since the 1960s. So will this year be the new fourth worst, third worst, second worst, or worst wildfire year on record? Read on, and take a guess.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, publishes a ton of useful statistics on wildfires that are critical for helping state and federal agencies manage the flames. These records date back to the 1960s.

The chart below, created with the National Interagency Fire Center data, shows that the worst years for wildfires in the U.S., since these records began being kept, were 2006 (9,873,745 acres burned), 2007 (9,328,045 acres burned), 2012 (9,326,238 acres burned), 2011 (8,711,367 acres burned), and 2005 (8,689,389 acres burned).

Already as of September 18, 2015, 8,821,040 acres of land have burned across the U.S., and this number exceeds the total number of acres burned for 2011. Hence, 2015 has already earned a spot as the 4th worst year on record, and the 2015 wildfire season is still going strong.

Annual amount of land burned by wildfires in the U.S. Image Credit: D. E. Conners, EarthSky.

Annual amount of land burned by wildfires in the U.S. Image via D. E. Conners, EarthSky.

Trees engulfed in flames at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Trees engulfed in flames at the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Image via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To explore how this year might stack up to the others, it’s useful to compare the September 18 year-to-date numbers for 2015 to the year-to-date numbers for the top three worst wildfire years on record:

• 2015 – 8,821,040 acres burned as of September 18 versus

• 2006 (worst year on record based on annual data) – 8,849,418 acres burned as of September 18
• 2007 (2nd worst year on record based on annual data) – 8,056,257 acres burned as of September 18
• 2012 (3rd worst year on record based on annual data) – 8,379,998 acres burned as of September 18

These numbers show that the trend for the 2015 wildfire season is very close to that of 2006, the worst year on record.

El-Nino-related rains later in the season could prevent 2015 from becoming the worst year on record, but only time will tell.

Visit the National Interagency Fire Center’s situation report for September 21, 2015

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Wildfires are changing the landscape of the U.S. West

There have been some spectacular images of wildfires in the U.S. in 2015, not the least of which was the “firenado” video, above, which was widely shared by the media in August, 2015.

This video came originally from Craig Fluer on Instagram, who captured this firenado over Idaho in July. These terrifying but brief apparitions are not new, although we rarely see them captured on video. They form when heat from the wildfire causes air to rise rapidly and begin to whirl.

Of course, the severe ongoing drought in the U.S. West is not helping the wildfire situation in 2015.

Smokey sunset from EarthSky community member Edwin Brion, July, 2015.

Another smokey sunset from an EarthSky community member. This one is from Edwin Brion in Canada, July, 2015.

Bottom line: According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, the 2015 wildfire season in the U.S. will be among the top four worst years on record based on the amount of land that has already burned.

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More, bigger wildfires burning western U.S.

El Niño this year: What will it bring?

Deanna Conners

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