With 15,000 firefighters deployed and three dozen major wildfires currently burning in five Western states, this would seem to be a wildfire season for the record books. And in one tragic aspect, it is. But by most measures, 2013 is the second-mildest fire season in the past decade ... so far.
Here's the season to date, by the numbers (provided by the National Interagency Fire Center) and with some historic statistics for comparison.
- Acres burned: 3,199,259 (in fact, only one wildfire season since 2004 has had fewer acres burned to date)
- Acres burned to date last year: 6,016,199
- Acres burned to date — 10-year average: 5,139,175
- Structures — homes, businesses and outbuildings — lost to date: 1,541
- Structures lost during entire 2012 season: 4,244
- Average number of structures lost entire season since 2001: 2,857
- Federal suppression costs to date (U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior): $1.099 billion
- Federal suppression budget this season: $791.5 million
- Federal suppression costs entire 2012 season: $1.9 billion
Yes, the U.S. firefighting agencies are already over budget this season by more than $200 million. But it's typical for firefighting costs to exceed the suppression budget. The federal agencies involved "borrow" or simply take money from other programs. Sometimes, they go to Congress for supplemental appropriations.
This year's budget was slashed owing to sequestration, resulting in the loss of 500 firefighter jobs. National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says the spending cuts have not strained the firefighting effort so far, even with 15,000 firefighters and support crews deployed.
The grimmest numbers show the greatest impact. With the tragic loss of 19 firefighters in Arizona in June, this has been the deadliest season since 2003, when 30 wildland firefighters lost their lives.
- Firefighter fatalities to date: 30
- Firefighter fatalities in 2012 season: 15
- Firefighter fatalities — 10-year average: 16
The National Interagency Fire Center rates the demand on firefighting resources on a scale of 1 to 5. This "National Preparedness Level," as it's called, is now at Level 4.
Smith says the agency's logistics managers figure they're very close to hitting Level 5. But she notes that diminishing wildfire activity in Oregon and Washington will enable fire managers to shift crews from the Northwest to other areas with more demanding blazes.
Smith also points out that the most active portion of California's wildfire season begins in September and extends through October. So there's plenty of opportunity for the 2013 season to turn from mild to wild.
Much of the West is also gripped by drought and excessive heat, creating conditions conducive to wildfire.
It's also worth noting that the 10-year average is generally higher than that of earlier fire seasons. Since 2000, significantly more acreage has burned in most years than in most of the previous 40 years. Here are the numbers if you'd like to take a look.
And for an in-depth look at how wildfire has changed, check out this series of stories reported by my colleague Christopher Joyce.