According to new preliminary data released by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), wildfires scorched more than 10 million acres of land in the United States during 2015. That makes 2015 the worst wildfire year on record based on data dating back to the early 1960s. The year was marked by intense drought across much of the western U.S., which likely contributed to the high levels wildfire activity.
Although the NIFC does caution that the data sources prior to 1983 cannot be confirmed and that the older data should not be compared to later data, the long-term numbers posted on their website do represent some of the best data available on wildfires during the mid-twentieth century. Hence, some comparisons are made below with the caveat that the older data are likely not as accurate as the newer data.
The NIFC records show that 10,125,149 acres of land burned in the U.S. during 2015. This amount represents a 54% increase over the 10-year average (2005–2014) of 6,595,028 acres of land burned and a 133% increase over the long-term average (1961–2014) of 4,352,990 acres of land burned.
The year 2015, which was the worst year for wildfires in the long-term record, was marked by intense drought across much of the western U.S., and dry conditions from drought likely contributed to the high levels of wildfire activity. CNN has posted a neat interactive tool that lets you view maps of the drought in the U.S. as it progressed throughout the year in 2015–you can view that tool at the link here.
The top three worst years for wildfires over the past several decades were 2015 (10,125,149 acres burned), 2006 (9,873,745 acres burned), and 2007 (9,328,045 acres burned). The top five worst years for wildfires (2015, 2006, 2007, 2012, and 2011) have all occurred in the most recent decade.
The final NIFC report summarizing 2015 wildfire activity will likely be released sometime in the spring of 2016. The annual reports, besides providing finalized yearly data, contain valuable information about the main weather-related factors driving wildfire trends.
Bottom line: New preliminary data from the National Interagency Fire Center show that more than 10 million acres of land burned across the U.S. in 2015—it was the worst year for wildfires in the past several decades.
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.