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Know the West

The 2015 fire season hasn’t broken any all-time records — yet

The usually fire-prone Southwest has burned less than the Pacific Northwest, California and Alaska.


On Monday, USA Today reported that U.S. wildfires were approaching “record levels.” The article pointed at the more than 5.5 million acres burned so far this season — second only to the summer in 2011, when just over six million acres had burned by the end of July.

Certainly, the 2015 fire season started off with a bang. As of Thursday, 21 large fires — meaning more than 100 acres — were burning in Western states. But when it comes to wildfire, the tide turns quickly, and this season may not set any all-time records.

This year’s fire season has been an odd one. The usually fire-prone Southwest has burned less than the Pacific Northwest, California and Alaska. More than 85 percent of acreage burned has been in Alaska. Meanwhile Colorado, which has broken a number of its own fire records over the past few years, has remained relatively fire-free.

While 2011 had seen a high number of big burns by mid-year, it eventually fell behind 2006, 2007 and 2012. By December 31, 2011, a mere 8.7 million acres had burned — nearly a million acres behind 2006, which saw nearly 10 million scorched acres.

A wildfire burns in Alaska's Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge in 2008
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ultimately, how 2015 stacks up in the grand scheme of things will depend on the fall fire season, says Randy Eardley, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Fall fires are largely dependent on human activity; with natural ignition, like lightning, all but disappearing, people are the primary fire-starters come autumn.

This year’s regional shift in fire severity worries fire managers, who say it’s likely to catch people off guard who wouldn’t normally be expecting high fire risk. Recently a cyclist made headlines in Idaho after burning a piece of toilet paper that sparked a 73-acre forest fire. In a normal year, such an act might not be so devastating. But western Idaho, like the rest of the surrounding region, has been experiencing a higher-than-normal wildfire risk this July, and it doesn’t take much for things to get out of hand. 

NIFC predicts things will begin to stabilize in many parts of the country, come August. Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, currently experiencing below normal fire risk, will level out. And by September and October, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and most of California are expected to get out of the hot zone. Of note, if not for Alaska, most of the lower 48 would be having a great fire year, says Eardley. Rarely in the past decade have we seen such few acres burn by late July. In fact, there are 10,000 fewer fires this year than average for the time period.

September/October 2015 Outlook

In Colorado’s Front Range, a wet 2014 coupled with heavy rains this spring kept fire activity at bay. “The longevity of our dryness periods has not been very long this year,” says Tim Mathewson, fire meteorologist for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. “We’ll have three hot and dry days and then we get pulses of moisture.” But all that precipitation can give people a false sense of security, he says. The issue is that during these wet periods, an abundance of fine fuels, namely grasses, were able to spring up. 

And with the fall come warm, dry periods and cold fronts, which are supportive of fire, especially when coupled with an above-average amount of grasses. A single spark could easily be disastrous.

Gloria Dickie is an editorial intern at High Country News.