2015 wildfires burned a record-breaking 10.1 million acres

Fires in Alaska help to smash 2006 record.


The summer of 2015 was unlike anything most career firefighters had ever seen. Across the United States, fires erupted not only in dry woodlands, but also in grasslands, rainforests, and tundra, ignited by lightning strikes and careless campers. Flames dripped from lichen-covered trees in the Pacific Northwest, and in Alaska, ate into permafrost. Two hundred. U.S. military personnel were called in to battle the ferocious blazes across the West — as were Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders.

The Aggie Creek Fire burns 30 miles northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska.

By year’s end, wildfires would consume more than 10.1 million acres of land in the U.S., destroying 4,500 homes and taking the lives of 13 wildland firefighters. Fighting the blazes cost an unprecedented $2.6 billion, the majority spent in the West. "While the news that more than 10 million acres burned is terrible, it's not shocking, and it is probable that records will continue to be broken,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press release last week. 

The burned acreage surpasses the 2006 record of 9.9 million acres, which itself was the biggest year documented since modern record keeping began in 1960 (during the 1920s through 1940s, burned acreage averaged 30 million to 50 million acres). Though more than 68,000 fires flared this summer, it was ultimately Alaska that put 2015 into the record books. More than 5.1 million acres burned up north, the state’s second largest fire season after 2004.

“This year we had fires occurring from the Canadian border over by Northway, on the Alaskan Highway, all the way out to the Lower Kuskokwim River, almost to Bethel, which drops into the Bering Sea, all at the same time,” says Kent Slaughter, manager of the Alaska Fire Service, noting though this season wasn’t the largest, fires were more widespread. 

Because Alaska’s fire season typically has a head start on the Lower 48, the state’s fire managers are able to call on the rest of the nation for crews and tankers. Still, resources are finite, says Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

“There’s only 30 to 40 large air tankers in the system, 110 hotshot crews, and around 400 smokejumpers — when everything is busy, very quickly all resources are committed … and not everything can be supplied,” he says.

Due to the state’s remote, rugged terrain, firefighting in Alaska can be especially expensive. “They require a lot of aircraft and they have less infrastructure to get to fires,” Frederick explains.

Such costs quickly add up, and by mid-year, policymakers and government officials were gawking at the price tag. During a one-week period this August, wildfire suppression across the nation cost a record $243 million. That month, Vilsack announced that the Forest Service had exhausted its firefighting forces and had nearly every piece of its suppression equipment in use, and had completely drained its wildfire budget. As it does every year, the agency was then forced to make up the shortfall by transferring funds away from forest restoration, trail work and watershed management.

Congress failed to fix the Forest Service’s funding problem yet again this year, though. Officials were hopeful the proposed Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would make the 2016 federal budget, but it was not included amid opposition from Key Senate leaders, like Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Green groups, too, provided pushback against the Act, noting they wanted a “clean” wildfire budget fix without harmful logging provisions favored by some conservative representatives.

Had it passed, the bipartisan effort would have treated wildfires like other natural disasters, thus ending the transfer of money from other programs to fight blazes. Instead, the Forest Service and Department of Interior would be able to access a federal disaster relief account, once they’d spent more than 70 percent of the 10-year average costs of fire suppression — roughly $1.13 billion. 

Rather, the Forest Service will see a short-term fix  a slight top-up of funds. The 2016 federal budget provides $1.6 billion for firefighting, an increase of $600 million from 2015, and $1 billion less than the actual amount spent on firefighting last year. 

At the heart of the requests for increased funds is a desperate need for more money for forest and rangeland restoration, including forest thinning and prescribed burns that can reduce the spread and intensity of fires.

Historically, the Lower 48 has required more intensive restoration work after fires to stop erosion and prevent invasive plants from moving in; Slaughter notes “very little” work is done in Alaska. But recently, he’s noticed a troubling change in the state’s fire cycle that could ramp up restoration needs.

Young fire scars, only 10 or 15 years old, were reburning. Typically, recently burned areas provide a barrier to the growth of large fires. Fires may rip through black spruce but stop moving once they hit an area of new growth. Instead, “there were numerous instances where those were being burned through.” Such changes could mean the fuel dynamic — what vegetation is growing back — has been altered, or that fires are more intense, burning out the root systems.

Even the tussock tundra has changed. Instead of grasses and sedges, larger, taller shrubs have taken root in the ecosystem due to climatic warming, serving as fire-friendly fuel.

Though it’s too soon to say what the 2016 fire season will hold, everyone is paying close attention to the effects of El Nino. The weather phenomenon is expected to soak parts of the Southwest this month, and massive storms have already hit California, making a small dent in the drought that has plagued the state for four years. Come summer, that extra moisture could keep fires at bay, at least in those parts of the West. For now though, fire modelers are deferring to meteorologists.

Gloria Dickie is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter.

Richard Crow
Richard Crow Subscriber
Jan 12, 2016 12:33 PM
Forest thinning works well but is extremely expensive. The area I live in, Woodland Park, Colorado, and the surrounding area has had an aggressive thinning program for years and still has about eight years to go. It works and is being done partly because of grants but it is being done on a miniscule scale compared to the overall problem in the western half of the US. There simply isn't enough man power or trillions of dollars to do what needs to be done. Then there is the problem with environmentalists suing to stop any project that might change the "natural" progression of the forest. We have seen this when large areas of trees are damaged due to fire or the wind knocking them down. Law suits were filed to stop logging of these trees, so they became disease infested and that spreads the problem. Passing legislation to correct the many problems is pretty much a no go because the east half of the country simply doesn't give a damn about the west.
Kent Matowitz
Kent Matowitz Subscriber
Jan 12, 2016 02:40 PM
Massive storms have already hit California? Our typical "storm" this year has been about .25" and our totals are well-below last year's, a drought year. Sounds like everybody's drinking the El Nino kool-aid.
Ed Patrovsky
Ed Patrovsky
Jan 12, 2016 06:01 PM
Actually the Sierra Nevada snow pack is above average.
Kent Matowitz
Kent Matowitz Subscriber
Jan 12, 2016 06:45 PM
Yes, but there have been no "massive" storms. Just trying to keep a handle on media sensationalism referring to El Nino as the great saviour. Trying to keep a long-term perspective on an obviousily changing climate.
Ed Patrovsky
Ed Patrovsky
Jan 12, 2016 10:30 PM
You have a point. I have been amused by some of these weather forcasters who are so assured about these massive predicted storms, as if they have already occurred.
Julia Duin
Julia Duin Subscriber
Jan 12, 2016 11:14 PM
Why would Lisa Murkowski vote against something benefiting her own state? That was a huge hole the reporter left in that story. I was living in Fairbanks when those fires were happening in mid-late June and it was no picnic.
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Jan 13, 2016 09:16 AM
I have a few comments about this article, which is titled, “2015 wildfires burned a record-breaking 10.1 million acres” and which HCN sent out a tweet, which read: “2015 #wildfires smashed prev. record.”

The fact is that 2015 was not a record-breaking year for wildfires in the U.S. Not by a long shot.

For example, in 1930 and 1931, over 50 million acres burned each year. Furthermore, during the 10 year (hot and dry) period from the late 1920’s to the late 1930’s an AVERAGE of 30 million acres burned every year in the United States.

See this chart from the U.S. Forest Service, which was contained in an official U.S. Forest Service documented titled, “Forest Resources of the United States, 1992.”


Additionally, if we want to go back further, the 2001 National Fire Plan update indicates that an average of 145 million acres burned annually in the pre-industrial, conterminous United States.

Those totals are far, far beyond the 10.1 million that burned in 2015, over 50% of which burned in Alaska, much of it over trees-less tundra or in remote places where active fire suppression isn’t really used.

I contacted the author of this article and also the HCN editor about this, and while I appreciate the fact that they edited paragraph 3 of the story to now read:

“The burned acreage surpasses the 2006 record of 9.9 million acres, which itself was the biggest year documented since modern record keeping began in 1960 (during the 1920s through 1940s, burned acreage averaged 30 million to 50 million acres).”

The entire premise of this article (and many others like it that have been written in the past week) is that 2015 was the largest U.S. wildfire year on record. Again, that’s entirely not true.

The public needs to understand that under the George W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal government agencies largely purged all records and information about wildfire acre burned stats from before the period of 1960.

In my opinion this purge of wildfire data pre-1960 was done in a blatant attempt to make recent wildfire seasons seem much larger. We’ve pointed out these facts over the past few wildfire seasons but it seems like the media basically will report just about any wildfire season as being some sort of a record, even if they are not.

This year a new term has popped up in this debate and now some are claiming that ‘modern record keeping’ for wildfires didn’t start until 1960. What’s the basis for that sudden change? The first human was put in space in 1961, we dropped two nuclear fission bombs on Japan in 1945, most U.S. weather data goes back well beyond 1900.

However, we’re now supposed to believe that ‘modern record keeping’ for wildfires only started in 1960? That’s ridiculous.

And even if it is true that 1960 ushered in some sort of ‘modern record keeping’ era for measuring U.S. wildfire acres burned, are we supposedly to also assume that the documented 50 million acres burned in the U.S. in 1930 and again in 1931 were really closer to 5 million acres? Of course not.

My main point is that 10.1 million acres burned in 2015 isn’t even close to a ‘record’ wildfire year in the U.S. Sure it may be the most acres burned in the U.S. since 1960 (of course, added by 50%+ of the acres being in Alaksa), but that doesn’t it make it an all time record, which seems to be the premise of these articles and the the title.

If you look at that U.S. Wildfire Statistics Chart from 1930 to 1989 you can see some trends very clearly.

The truth is that largely before the end of the WW II era (when aircraft and smoke jumpers and ‘modern’ fire suppression activities started to take hold) the U.S. saw many more acres burned annually in wildfires than we do today.

The chart clearly corresponds with the U.S. Forest Service’s heavy-handed approach to wildfire suppression during the period of 1950 to about 2000, which it seemed like the agency finally admitted that aggressive fire suppression was potentially causing many more problems than it was solving.

The chart also corresponds with the fact that the 1920s to 1940s were mainly characterized by a warm/dry period in much of the U.S., while the period from the 1950s to 1980 were mainly characterized by a cooler/wet period in much of the country.

Of course, now – this year’s El Nino excluded – much of the western U.S. (and certainly Alaska) has been in the grips of record drought (apparently official drought records go back much further than 1960). This weather/climate fact combined with the fact that the U.S. Forest Service is trying to let some “Wildland Fire Use” fires burn with minimal suppression activities because of a recognition that the all-out suppression era of 1950 to 1990 created a host of other problems will of course result in a higher annual burned acre total in the U.S. How could we possibly expect any other outcome?

All of this doesn’t mean, though, that 2015 wildfire season “smashed all previous records.” Because, again, it did not. Not by a long shot. Thanks.
Nancy Freeman
Nancy Freeman
Jan 13, 2016 09:34 AM
Several years ago after the surge of wildfires in Arizona, I wrote a detailed letter to Congress and FS regarding some if the problems and some solutions. The Forest Service does have money--they are spending it on helicopters and chemicals instead of on-the-ground preventive maintenance. I know this is a long read--but just think of how long it took me to research and write it! http://www.g-a-l.info/ForestFireReport.htm
Irwin Schmidt
Irwin Schmidt
Aug 22, 2016 03:03 PM
My concern is the weather is very unstabile due to the heating of the climate. We will be in for more storms and hurricanes where there were none before