Year of Wildfires

As bad as it has been, it’s going to get worse.

47 responses to “Year of Wildfires

  1. Another quote: “If it weren’t for the suffering, this would be a very interesting time.”

  2. Perhaps you could use your statistics skills to analyse this
    “U.S. overall fire death rate trend
    The overall 10-year fire death rate trend decreased 21.6 percent from 2006 to 2015. The table and chart below show the decline in the fire death rate trend.
    Year Fire Death Rate (per million population)
    2006 13.2
    2007 13.3
    2008 12.0
    2009 11.1
    2010 11.1
    2011 11.0
    2012 10.0
    2013 11.0
    2014 10.8
    2015 10.5”

    • You know these stats are primarily about structure fires in the US, right, Jeff?

      • Ahhh…the old let’s put a true factoid devoid of any context out there and hope to have people make the “obvious” climate inference trick.

        Right out of Goddard’s playbook!

        I wonder who he thinks he is fooling on this of all sites?!

    • “fire death rate trend”
      Those are deaths from all fire causes (house, factories etc). Geographically, the peak is in DC. Forest fire deaths are a small proportion.

    • Isn’t that a statistic where the introduction of safety measures may be the most significant factor? While we are on such stuff: the number of dolphins killed in wildfires has remained fairly constant over an even longer time period.

    • Jeff,
      Why don’t you have a go at proposing an explanation for the apparent death rate trend? Make your point explicit, if you have one, so that we can consider whether it has merit.

    • Lars Träger

      Just a side note (from

      Analytic Issues and Considerations
      NFIRS only includes fires to which the fire service responded. In some states, fires attended by state fire agencies
      (such as forestry) are included; in other states, they are not.

      IOW at least some forest/wild fires and their damages, maybe even deaths may not be included in the numbers from the U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Data Center

      • yes, but dolphin deaths from all kinds of fires in every state remain constant over time and can be relied upon. given that, dolphin death from fire really is the gold standard for understanding what is happening. Very robust indicator, works for structure or wildfire.

  3. Hmmm, I’m thinking more stringent fire code regulations such as mandatory smoke detectors and sprinkler systems could have something to do with it, Jeff. Just sayin.

    But what exactly does this FEMA fire death data have to do with deaths specifically from wildfires?

    Another possible factor: Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. In a very short time a large and growing segment of the US population was better connected to news feeds, including warnings of in-progress fires and evacuations.

  4. Just looking at Wild fires, I am not sure the situation is getting worse –
    “Wildland Fire Fatalities by Year”
    1910 – 84 (US population 92 Million)
    1933 – 29 (pop. 125 M)
    1936 – 12
    1937 – 21
    1938 – 13
    1939 – 15

    2014 – 10
    2015 – 13
    2016 – 15
    2017 – 14 (pop. 325 M)

    Click to access Fatalities-by-Year.pdf

    • Timothy (likes zebras)

      Trivially it seems likely that people will more easily escape wildfires in an age of mass communication (radio, TV, internet) and widespread car ownership, where they can be warned of approaching fires and have the means to escape at speed, than in an age when transport was by foot/horse and communication slow.

      This doesn’t tell us anything about whether fires are becoming more widespread or more dangerous.

    • Chris Ho-Stuart

      You still need more common sense than actual statistical maths here Jeff; and with respect to statistics and significance you also still need to read the quote I gave previously (though it appears below) from your own link about problems with small numbers. Consider using “acreage burnt”; a much better statistic for looking at the impacts of climate on fire risks.

    • Are you trying to use the trend in wildland fire fatalities a s an indicator of the trend in forest area burned? What about deaths by drowning in the ocean? If the trend is down could it mean sea level isn’t rising?

      • Chris Ho-Stuart

        Who me? No. I am saying trends in area burned are better than trends in fatalities if looking for an influence of climate on wildfire.

  5. “Peshtigo Fire
    The Peshtigo fire was a massive forest fire that took place on October 8, 1871, in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It was the deadliest wildfire in American history, with estimated deaths of around 1,500 people, possibly as many as 2,500.”

    • And just *why* was it so deadly, Jeff? Because thinking about that question is the key to arriving at some conclusion that is actually meaningful, as opposed to quoting something that may be striking, but significance of which is undeveloped.

      • Further to Doc’s point: The old “Great Northwest” was essentially one large slashings pile in the late 19th/early 20th centuries due to the extreme logging of the time. Huge fires routinely broke out. Besides Peshtigo there were the Hinckley and Cloquet fires as additional examples and innumerable smaller examples.

        Little family history: My grandmother–6 months pregnant with my father–survived the Cloquet fire by riding on a flatcar on a train escaping the Brookston area while the forest fire crowned on both sides of the track.

  6. Here’s a good global overview of fire deaths: but, again, this data is primarily about structure fires. I am a retired firefighter.

  7. Chris Ho-Stuart

    Jeff, I think the appropriate skill for you to apply here is not statistics, but common sense. Your statistics are not for wildfires, but fire in general; nearly all the deaths are from fires in buildings. One trivial point of statistics that you should bear in mind is listed in your own source. It is…
    “** Fire death rates should be used with caution due to small numbers of deaths. Per the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 60, No. 4, “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2010,” a rate or percentage is based on at least 20 deaths. Rates based on fewer than 20 deaths are considered highly variable.”

    The far more relevant point to this blog, however, is that the “death from fires” om general is almost completely irrelevant to the topic at hand in this blog, since your statistics are overwhelmingly associated with fires in buildings; not wildfire, and the real impact of wildfire is only crudely captured with death rates anyway — even if you had made the effort to give the more relevant statistic of deaths from wildfire.

  8. “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world”

    “We have shown here that the widely held perception of increasing fire and fire impacts at the global and some regional scales is not well supported by the realities that the available data show.

    The data available to date, however, do not support a general increase in area burned or in fire severity for many regions of the world. Indeed, there is increasing evidence suggesting that there is overall less fire in the landscape today than there has been centuries ago

    Analysis of charcoal records in sediments and isotope-ratio records in ice cores suggest that global biomass burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the past 2000 years.

    for the Californian Cascades and Sierra Nevada, Mallek et al. suggest that ‘modern’ (1984–2009) annual area burned was only 14% of that burned annually prior to European settlement (approx. 1500–1850)

    • Jeff, you appear to be clinging onto anything that sounds as if it debunks the reality that some regions are having serious and increasing problems–in the words of your cited paper, “important exceptions” where there is clear quantitative evidence of increased risk–but not trying actually to think about meaning.

      For example, what do you think the impact of a six-fold larger annual burned area “prior to European settlement” might have been on the then-inhabitants, versus the impact of the fires burning today? And do you think the decrease has anything to do with the existence of Calfire, and other firefighting agencies active in the area?

      And do you see the change (claimed in your paper) from a high-acreage burn prior to 1850 to a lower-acreage annual burn after that time as having anything to do with climate change? Given that the anthropogenic warming trend only seems to have become dominant over natural variability around 1970 or ’75, does this make sense?

    • I actually think these are useful papers when trying to understand the extents and severities of forest fires. The Mallek et al. paper suggests, for instance, that much of the reduction in burned area between 1984 and 2009 is due to human-caused suppression efforts of small fire. The authors state:

      “The ecological consequences of fire suppression and the subsequent fire deficit in frequent-fire forest types in the western US have been understood for many years (…). Nonetheless, under current federal policies almost all fires, whether naturally occurring or not, are put out within days of ignition. […] Outside of these limited areas [where fires are managed, not suppressed], nearly the only fires that reach any size are those that escape control under severe climatological conditions, in heavy fuels, and/or in inaccessible topography (Calkin et al. 2005). Since almost all fires occurring under moderate conditions are put out, areas burned by wildfire in the contemporary study area suffer from a statistical predisposition to burn at higher severity. This is especially evident in lower and middle elevation forests […] where steadily increasing levels of forest fuels due to a century-and-counting of fire suppression, and the effects of warming climates, decreasing snowpack, and drier late summer days on fire behavior are accelerating forest biomass loss to fire.”

      Whether or not you’re actually interested in using these sources to make a scientific point or a purely political one, the experts’ statements speak for themselves. Did humans cause a large modern reduction in fire extent with suppression efforts? Sure, that’s entirely reasonable. Are suppression efforts causing an increase in fire fuels that will exacerbate fire intensity? Sure, that’s also entirely reasonable, and I think we’ve been hearing about this for some time. Will global warming lead to increased fire intensity or extents? The experts also say that this is the case. Is fire extent increasing even in modern times? In certain regions, like the American southwest, this does appear to be the case too. Might these trends not be a global phenomenon? No, they might not be.

      All of these can be simultaneously true. And if we’re going to come to a common and accurate understanding of the facts, it’s good to know these things. So to that end, thanks for the links, especially this past one. However, you seem to be arguing beyond the scope of the facts, that fire intensity is not increasing at all (merely because it has been much higher in the far past?) or that it is not a problem (because it is not a problem everywhere?), and I dare say also that climate cannot have an impact (which is not supported by your linked study/studies). I would recommend against that.

      • Eminently sensible, and well-stated, IMO.

      • Alex C
        “Are suppression efforts causing an increase in fire fuels that will exacerbate fire intensity? Sure, that’s also entirely reasonable, and I think we’ve been hearing about this for some time. Will global warming lead to increased fire intensity or extents? The experts also say that this is the case. Is fire extent increasing even in modern times? In certain regions, like the American southwest, this does appear to be the case too. ”

        Stefan H. Doerr and Cristina Santín write
        “Regarding fire severity, limited data are available. For the western USA, they indicate little change overall, and also that area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement. Direct fatalities from fire and economic losses also show no clear trends over the past three decades.”

        Which experts to believe ?

      • You already linked to the Doerr and Santin paper, and I know you know I know, so I’m not sure why you quote them again. I can go point by point again if you missed it:

        “Are suppression efforts causing an increase in fire fuels that will exacerbate fire intensity? Sure, that’s also entirely reasonable, and I think we’ve been hearing about this for some time.”

        This was a conclusion of Mallek et al., cited in the paper you gave, and the authors Doerr and Santin also say the same:

        “Considering ten national forests in California for the same period, Miller & Safford [74] found a significant increase in burn severity for yellow pine–mixed conifer forests. They attribute this largely to decades of fire suppression and other management practices rather than climate, which have led to major changes in forest composition and structure, increases in density and fuel-loading, and hence fire behaviour.”

        So which experts to believe, you ask? Both, because they agree.

        I go on to say:

        “Will global warming lead to increased fire intensity or extents? The experts also say that this is the case.”

        This is something that Mallek et al. said, as I quoted. Your own authors say the same:

        “We do not question that fire season length and area burned has increased in some regions over past decades, as documented for parts of North America, or that climate and land use change could lead to major shifts in future fire consequences, with potential increases in area burned, severity and impacts over large regions [19,50,53] […] The warming climate, which is predicted to result in more severe fire weather in many regions of the globe in this century [53] will probably contribute further to both perceived and actual risks to lives, health and infrastructure.”

        Again, which experts to believe? Both, as they agree.

        I continue:

        “Is fire extent increasing even in modern times? In certain regions, like the American southwest, this does appear to be the case too.”

        You quote Doerr and Santin as saying fire INTENSITY has not increased, which is true and not true, as detailed in the Mallek et al. paper. Total fire burnage, including high intensity and low intensity, is down from 500 years ago, however the proportion of fires that are high intensity is larger today than in pre-colonial times. Nevertheless, I talked about extent, not intensity, and I did so very intentionally because I actually read the Mallek at el. paper.

        So which experts to believe? Well since Doerr and Santin did not investigate recent trends in fire extent, there’s nothing from them to quote, but since they cited Mallek et al. it’s clear who the relevant source is.

        I was actually trying to put my best foot forward and take your sources seriously, and I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said that I appreciated the extra insight. But if you’re going to be a crank who won’t bother to understand his own sources, please just stop commenting here. I’m not going to spend further time on bad faith arguers, and I dare say you won’t get more traction here anyway.

      • Jeff, you seem to be missing Alex’s point, which is that several different things can be true at once.

        For instance, in the paper you cite, *in addition* to the bits that you quote, the authors also state that:

        “Indeed, according to national statistics for the USA, while area burned by prescribed fire has changed little overall since reporting began in 1998 (10 year average: 8853 km2), area burned by wildfires has seen an overall strong trend of increase by over 5% yr−1 over the period 1991–2015, with 2015 exceeding 40 000 km2 burned for the first time during the past 25 years (figure 3).”

        [Compare Alex’s “Is fire extent increasing even in modern times? In certain regions, like the American southwest, this does appear to be the case too.”]

        Also that:

        “…increasing fire season length in some areas [50], which is an important contributor to the increase in area burned during this century in the northwestern USA [43,46], boreal Canada and Alaska [51,52]. A future lengthening of the fire season is also anticipated for many other regions of the globe, with a potential associated increase of fire activity [19,53–56].”

        [Alex wrote “Will global warming lead to increased fire intensity or extents? The experts also say that this is the case.”]

        Not to mention that:

        “…fire intensity can indeed be expected to increase with air temperature [67], and it can be deduced that areas that are experiencing higher atmospheric temperatures in the fire season associated with global warming would experience more intense fires. For example, the catastrophic 2009 Black Saturday fires of Victoria (Australia) were reportedly associated, among other factors, with unprecedented high atmospheric temperatures (since measurements began) and fire intensity [68].”

        [Again, increased “intensity”.]

        I presume that you wouldn’t argue that these points are due to ‘different authors’ writing the bits you quoted, versus those I cite.

        The bottom line is that wildfire is a complicated phenomenon. If you really want to understand the question, you’ve got to read the paper, you’ve got to think seriously about it, and you need to read other papers as well. One way to find those papers is to search out the paper cited by your source paper. That way, you may be able to see how the scientific community responded.

        Google Scholar is a convenient tool to do just that. Here’s a search I ran on your cite:,41&sciodt=0,41&cites=8286696377510390030&scipsc=

        Here are some potentially interesting later papers:

      • That’s a valiant and sincere effort, Doc. Here is a description of the problem we face when we hope to help Jeff actually understand the science that he is skimming:
        It’s pretty discouraging to know that untruths repeated have so much staying power.
        Meanwhile, Trump and Zinke have identified the wildfire problem as environmentalists and water policy.
        Who is Jeff most inclined to believe?

      • Ever the optimist, smb, that’s me…

      • Interestingly, another 2016 paper finds strong increasing wildfire trends across the western US (although not in the Southern Cascades region of California):

        Click to access 16RSTB_Westerling.pdf

    • Jeff, what I can’t figure out is whether you are being deliberately obtuse or if you simply show remarkable natural talent in that regard. Climate models do not predict an increase in fatalities. Nor do they have much to say about how much biomass may have burned in prehistoric times, long before there was any way to fight or suppress fires.

      What they predict is that some areas of the country will be much drier and hotter in some portions of the year–so what they predict is that for those portions of the year and country, you might be more likely to have fires ignite AND they might well burn more terrain. That is what the data show.

      Do you have any colors of herring other than red?

  9. Tamino: “Here’s a bunch of scientific data showing a definite correlation between seat belt use and car crash survivability.”

    Jeff: “Tamino, I knew this guy one time whose aunt died in a car crash even though she was wearing a seat belt. Clearly, then, your statistics are wrong. Also, seat belts are obviously deadly.”

  10. While the appeal to our humanist sensibilities by focusing on wildfire death rates has its attraction, I would bet that is not what the insurance industry is paying attention to.

  11. Keep peddling this one here, Jeff, it will keep your pathetic drivel out of the other threads.

    • goo advice – “containment” ironically it is how firefighters try and deal with forest fires

  12. I hope Jeff sticks around. I need a break from the heavy math stuff that keeps arising here.

  13. theory of mind might be helpful in understanding the communication problem:

    “the essence of a theory of mind was not intentions but rather was beliefs. That is, to predict and explain an agent’s behavior in novel circumstances, one must understand that agents behave not with respect to reality but with respect to their beliefs about reality”

  14. Meanwhile down under, in New South Wales, in the middle of winter we have over 80 bushfires burning and homes being destroyed.

  15. Here is another take on the issue.

    • While I am no expert on BC hydrology or the regional effects of climate change on BC, I do note that for all his talk about more water, the majority of the province is presently rated 3 or 4–very dry to extremely dry on a 4 point scale. All the rest except for a quite small area around Ft. St. John and Dawson’s Creek (East Peace) is rated 2–dry.

      Map is here (see 2nd tab)

      On the surface, at least, I don’t see how his take goes along with what’s happening.

      • Good point–but the ‘Langley chemist’ might still be right. That is, the current dry conditions could well be dry not because of, but in spite of, the projected cliimate signal–or at least, the projected *precipitation* signal. I recall reading one of the BAMS extreme weather attribution articles a few years back, in which they rejected anthropogenic influence on some extreme Colorado downpours based on parallel logic–that is, that the modeling showed such events becoming regionally *less* likely under climate change scenarios. So from this perspective, it’s ‘weather, not climate.’

        It seems to me, though, that climate change could still ‘sneak in the back door’, in that the warmer temperatures *during dryer periods* would still elevate fire risk *during those periods*. Such an influence has been in the BC news relatively recently, apparently:

        Basically, it’s opposed effects. But it does sound as if that was taken into account in the study referenced in LC’s blog post.

      • There is one other thing I think he is ignoring: Coastal BC might well get more rain but I find it–in my only partially informed opinion–unlikely that all that much of it would get over the coastal mountains even if there were lots more coastal rain. Think eastern Oregon and how dry it can get there–10″ or less annually–even though the coasts get up to 200″/yr.

      • Added: Reference to a current fire map shows that the vast majority of active fires are east of the coastal mountains.

      • You are right about the absolute precip levels in interior and coast, of course. And it certainly makes abundant sense that the bulk of the fire risk is in the interior, which is dry, and not in the coastal areas, which after all qualify as temperate rain forests.

        But I wonder if the anomalies still track in a similar way under warming, such that the interior will get wetter, but starting from its much lower baseline level? I seem to remember seeing a projected trend map showing such a pattern….


        April trend map:

        That’s the reverse pattern, with the coast showing the least change, and inland areas getting progressively relatively moister over time.

        August trend map:

        Here it’s a drying trend, and the gradient is north-south, not east-west.

        Found here:

        The original sources offers monthly temp & precip maps for each month, for various RCPs and future time periods. It reveals that the maps above are under RCP 8.5, and that the August north-south pattern pretty much holds during summer months, while the April pattern is reasonably similar (at least at a quick glance) to most of the other non-summer months.

        But that doesn’t invalidate your suggestion, I think, for practical purposes. It seems to me that to calculate practical fire risk projections for these areas, you’d need a whole other layer of analysis, and it would probably involve both the delta and the absolute levels of precipitation.

        Then there’s the fact that the summer is the heart of the fire season, which is a *really* big objection to LC’s ideas! In fact, even the moister months could be problematic for fire risk, because moister conditions in late winter and early spring might mean more early vegetation growth, which could well mean higher fuel loads during increasingly arid summers.

        I also think that another variable would ideally be taken into account, too, which is potential changes in wind. Wind conditions are extremely critical to those fighting wildfires, for reasons that probably need no elaboration. So it would be wonderful if we could have some idea of what might happen to wind over time. But I don’t think there’s a lot of knowledge developed yet on that front.

    • I think I detect a cherry-picked time frame by the chemist in Langley. I think the langley chemist argument is sophisticated nonsense. Well done, good work with the smoke and mirrors.

  16. Philippe Chantreau

    There is more to the situation in BC. I was wondering about it so I started digging, there is a lot of info publicly available from the Province. Several factors are playing. The most important one is the biotic stressors, leading to much more loss on cultivated forest than expected. The majority of these stressors have been shown by research to have become more severe due to climate change. The mountain beetle is well known but there are many others. In some replanted parcels, up to 24% of lodgepole pine can be non harvestable due to killing or maiming agents, a far cry from the 4-5% initially estimated. These younger pine also seem to be somehow more “attractive” to lightning. I was looking for differences in fire resilience in old growth compared to replanted forests but got distracted and haven’t formed an idea on that yet.
    Overall, summer precipitation has increased in the Province, but without leading to a decrease in condition favorable to large, intense fires. All the worse years they’ve had have been this century. 2012 was especially bad, and then there was 2017. I am not sure about the geographical distribution of precipitation. I have not found specific research showing it, but I suspect that the increase in precipitation is due to more frequent, localized, heavy rain events that fail to maintain overall soil moisture due to warmer, dryer stretches in between. The number of days above 90 degrees and the length of hot day stretches have increased. All in all, it seems to fall right in what was predicted as a result climate change and it’s happening now.