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.
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.
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.
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.
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.