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Wildfire Season Summary

National Climatic Data Center, 16 December 2002 (last updated)

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JUNE / JULY / AUGUST / SEPTEMBER / SEASON SUMMARY
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Top of Page June

    Satellite image of a wildfire in Arizona
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    Due to ongoing drought, the western wildfire season in the U.S. has so far been both active and early compared to average. As of the end of June according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were nearly 2.8 million acres burned in 2002. The (ten-year) average number of acres burned by June 30th is only around 1.1 million acres. The 2001 fire season was near average (though it began somewhat later than usual), however, the 2000 fire season was one of the worst of the last 50 years. The acreage burned so far in 2002 has surpassed the extent of land destroyed by fire by June 30th in 2000 by around 1.2 million acres.

    While some of this year's fires were started by lightning, many were reportedly started by human activities as a result of accident or arson. Most of the large fires in June occurred in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, with significant wildfire activity also in evidence in Utah, California, Georgia and Virginia. Further information on this year's fire season can be found on NCDC's drought pages and at the National Interagency Fire Center's web-site. Large fire locations
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Top of Page July

    Satellite image of a wildfire
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    Ongoing drought conditions continue to contribute to the unusually active western wildfire season. As of the end of July according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were just over 4 million acres burned by July 31st this year. The (ten-year) average number of acres burned by the same date is not quite 2 million acres. Some of the contiguous states which have suffered the most acreage destroyed by wildfire include Arizona (nearly 630,000 acres), Colorado (~380,000 acres) and Oregon (~363,000 acres), all as of the end of July. Many states (especially Oregon) have had many more acres burned during the first couple of weeks of August (see august section below). More details can also be found on the National Interagency Fire Center's web-site.

    One of the major wildfires in July was Oregon's Sour Biscuit fire which was reportedly started by lightning. Most of the large fires in July occurred in Oregon, California, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. Further information on this year's fire season can be found at the National Interagency Fire Center's web-site. Large fire locations
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    Agriculture and the cattle industry were severely impacted by the continuing wildfire activity in the West and water shortages were experienced in many localities. According to govexec.com, this fire season has already seen record fire losses -- 4 million acres and more than 1,800 homes have been burned.

    Seasonal (January 1-July 31) wildfire statistics, according to the National Interagency Fire Center:

    As of July 31 Nationwide Number of Fires Nationwide Number of Acres Burned
    2002 52,747 4,057,663
    2001 49,885 1,531,121
    2000 60,293 3,488,932
    10-year Average 53,742 1,963,598

    By State Approximate Number of Acres Burned, as of July 31, 2002
    Alaska 1,047,937
    Arizona 628,675
    California 233,967
    Colorado 381,870
    Idaho 34,502
    Nevada 69,113
    New Mexico 298,043
    Oregon 362,972
    Utah 230,149
    Washington 56,188
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Top of Page August

    Satellite image of a wildfire
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    Continuing dry conditions in the western U.S. further fueled the wildfires in August. Though the fire activity lessened somewhat during August, as of the beginning of September (according to the National Interagency Fire Center), there were well over 6 million acres burned this year. The (ten-year) average number of acres burned by the same date is approximately 3.2 million acres. However for the first month this year, there were fewer cumulative seasonal acres burned than during the very intense wildfire season of 2000 (see table below).

    Some of the contiguous states which have suffered the most acreage destroyed by wildfire include Arizona (nearly 650,000 acres), Colorado (~506,000 acres) and Oregon (~992,500 acres), all as of the end of August. While some of this year's fires were started by accident or arson, many were started by lightning, as was the case in Oregon's Sour Biscuit Fire which continued to burn through August. Most of the large fires in August occurred in Oregon, California, Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona. Further information on this year's fire season can be found at the National Interagency Fire Center's web-site. Large fire locations
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    Seasonal (January 1-September 3rd) wildfire statistics, according to the National Interagency Fire Center:

    As of September 3 Nationwide Number of Fires Nationwide Number of Acres Burned
    2002 62,924 6,330,440
    2001 58,545 2,945,049
    2000 74,180 6,524,274
    10-year Average 64,129 3,223,813

    By State Approximate Number of Acres Burned, as of September 3, 2002
    Alaska 2,191,280
    Arizona 649,020
    California 426,496
    Colorado 505,915
    Idaho 67,576
    Nevada 81,365
    New Mexico 308,244
    Oregon 992,475
    Utah 261,930
    Wyoming 76,208

    The graph to the right shows the fire scar chronology for the San Juan National Forest in the southern San Jaun Mountains of Colorado from 1686 through 1994. Scars have been collected at nine sites, and at each site numerous scarred trees were sampled. The top graph shows the number of sites each year that experienced fire, where at least one tree in the site exhibited fire scarring. The bottom graph shows the number of sites each year that experienced widespread fire, where at least 25% of the trees in a site exhibited fire scarring. The graphs indicate that fires are a natural part of the forest cycle in southern Colorado. The hiatus in fires circa 1750-1770 is likely climatically related, but the lack of fires during the 20th century is very likely due to fire suppression and changing land use management practices. (This data supplied by Dr. Henri D. Grissino-Mayer and based on research by him and colleagues William H. Romme, Lisa Floyd-Hanna, and David Hanna.) Click here for graph showing San Juan National Forest Fire Scar
Chronology, 1686-1994
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Top of Page September


The satellite image to the right shows 2 fires burning in early September. From the NIFC's September 3rd report, the Commissary Ridge Fire in Wyoming had burned approximately 1,800 acres and was 20% contained as of the 3rd, and the Big Fish Fire in Colorado had scorched 15,800 acres and was 0% contained. Further information on this year's fire season can be found at the National Interagency Fire Center's web-site. Large fire locations
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Large fire locations
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Fire activity has been much reduced in September compared to the earlier months of the fire season. Though the eastern season should now be beginning to get underway, rainfall associated with tropical systems has helped to alleviate some drought in the southeast, and fire risk is much reduced in these areas. The image to the left shows a fire burning to the northeast of Los Angeles, California, in the Angeles National Forest. The NIFC incident report of September 27th indicated that the Williams Fire had burned over 32,000 acres and was only 35% contained at the time of that report.

Seasonal (January 1-September 30th) wildfire statistics, according to the National Interagency Fire Center:

As of September 30th Nationwide Number of Fires Nationwide Number of Acres Burned
2002 67,304 6,579,125
2001 63,161 3,228,802
2000 80,294 6,866,910
10-year Average 70,541 3,470,409

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Top of Page Season Summary

The 2002 wildfire season began early and was the second largest in the past 50 years, after the year 2000. Nearly twice the 10-year average was burned and the total acreage destroyed in 2002 as of November 15th was about 7.1 million acres. Three states recorded their largest wildfires this century (Arizona, Colorado and Oregon), and 21 firefighters lost their lives while battling the fires.

Information courtesy of the NIFC.
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Top of Page Questions?

    For all climate questions other than questions concerning this report, please contact the National Climatic Data Center's Climate Services Division:

      Climate Services Division
      NOAA/National Climatic Data Center
      151 Patton Avenue
      Asheville, NC 28801-5001
      fax: 828-271-4876
      phone: 828-271-4800
      email: questions@ncdc.noaa.gov

    For further information on the historical climate perspective presented in this report, contact:

      Catherine Godfrey
      NOAA/National Climatic Data Center
      151 Patton Avenue
      Asheville, NC 28801-5001
      fax: 828-271-4328
      email: Catherine.S.Godfrey@noaa.gov
      Jay Lawrimore
      NOAA/National Climatic Data Center
      151 Patton Avenue
      Asheville, NC 28801-5001
      fax: 828-271-4328
      email: Jay.Lawrimore@noaa.gov


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