Wildfires - February 2009


Update: 06 March 2009

Wildfire activity across the United States was above average in February .  Although 30 large fires that had been active during the last week in January were contained by early February, by mid–month 18 new large fires had developed across Texas (4), eastern Kansas (3), Oklahoma (3), western Missouri (2), southern Florida (2), western North Carolina (1), Southern Mississippi (1), California (1), and the Arkansas/Louisiana border (1).  During the following week, fire activity was largely quelled in the central U.S., but several new fires flared in southern Florida.  At the end of February, however, Oklahoma and Texas saw worsening fire conditions as 27 large fires developed in a region from western Oklahoma and eastern Arkansas southwestward into central Texas.  As of February 27th 118 large fires have been battled and contained in 2009, while 13 large fires remained active – 7 in Texas, 5 in Oklahoma, 1 in Florida.

Links to Large Fire Maps:
[ January 30 |  February 13 |  February 20 |  February 27 ]


According to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), between February 1st and February 27th approximately 120,447 acres (48,743 hectares) were burned across the United States.  A total of 5,495 new wildfires were reported, which is 1,422 above the 2000–2009 average of 4,073 fires.  This is the third greatest number of fires in February since 2000, but is 1,066 fewer fires than the highest value in 2001.  The total acreage burned during February was 31,893 acres (12,907 hectares) above the 2000–2009 average of 88,554 acres (35,837 hectares), and for that 10–year period was the third greatest acreage burned in February after 2008 and 2000.

This month also ranks fourth amongst Februaries since 2000 in terms of the average size of fires.  The average acreage burned per fire in February was around 21.9 acres per fire (8.9 ha/fire).  This is 1.2 acres per fire (0.5 ha/fire) more than the 2000–2009 average (but 5 acres per fire [2 ha/fire] above the median value of 16.9 acres per fire [6.8 ha/fire]).

For the period from January 1st through February 27th, total year–to–date acreage burned was 177,579 acres (71,871 hectares), which was 32,627 acres (13,203 hectares) above the 2000–2009 average of 144,970 acres (58,6687 hectares), and fourth greatest since 1999 for amount of acreage burned for this period.  The year–to–date (January – February) number of fires was 7,976, or 2,083 fires above the 2000–2009 average of 5,893 fires.  This ranks 2009 as second for year–to–date number of fires, behind 2000 (8,467 fires).  Combined, the year to date number of fires and acreage burned yields an average of 22.3 acres per fire (9 ha/fire).  This value is 0.9 acres per fire (0.4 ha/fire) less than the 2000–2009 average.

The U.S. Drought Monitor at the end of February indicated severe to extreme drought conditions over much of California, Texas and Hawai'i as well as Nevada, northern Wisconsin and the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the southeast U.S. from Florida along the Appalachian mountains to northern Virginia.  Extreme to exceptional drought was present in southern central Texas, northern California, the western Carolinas and northeastern Georgia, and parts of the Hawaiian Islands.  For most of these regions, this is a continuation or worsening of drought conditions that were present at the start of February.

Moderate to very high fire danger was present across much of the Southern Tier of states at the beginning of the month.  Pockets of extreme fire danger existed in southern California and western Arizona, western Texas, the southern Mississippi Valley, western Missouri, and North Carolina.  By the end of February, however, a series of winter storms over northern California and across the southern Atlantic states greatly reduced fire danger in those places.  In addition, fire danger was reduced in western Texas, though it increased in southern Arizona and eastern Texas at the end of the month, according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) – Wildland Fire Assessment System.

Links to Fire Danger Maps:
[ February 1  |  February 16  |  March 1 ]


2009 Wildfire Statistics

(Source: NIFC)
Year–To–Date Totals as of February 27th Nationwide Number of Fires Nationwide Number of Acres Burned
02/27/2009 7,976 177,597
02/27/2008 5,829 254,987
02/27/2007 4,178 35,351
02/27/2006 5,936 411,011
02/27/2005 4,192 28,149
02/27/2004 4,587 55,173
02/27/2003 3,944 49,695
02/27/2002 6,032 65,566
02/27/2001 7,792 163,206
02/27/2000 8,467 208,967
5–yr average
(2005 – 2009)
5,622 181,419
10–yr average
(2000 – 2009)
5,893 144,970

At the start of February, exceptionally low 10–hour dead fuel moisture levels existed across much of the Southwest U.S., from southern California across to western Texas.  Extremely dry fuel conditions were also present in northern California early in the month.  Thanks to the aforementioned precipitation over northern California and the eastern seaboard throughout February, fuel moisture increased dramatically in those regions by the end of the month.  Unfortunately, fuels continued to dry out in the Southwest, with the area of critically low fuel moisture expanding northward into the Central Plains states toward the end of the month.  The 100–hr and 1000–hr fuel moisture levels followed a pattern similar to the 10–hour levels during February.

Links to 10–hr Fuel Moisture Maps:
[ February 1  |  February 16  |  March 1 ]

Links to 100–hr Fuel Moisture Maps:
[ February 1 |  February 16 |  March 1 ]

Links to 1000–hr Fuel Moisture Maps:
[ February 1  |  February 16  |  March 1 ]

The Keetch–Byram Drought Index (KBDI), a widely used drought index for fire risk, showed dry conditions at the beginning of the month in parts of the western and southwestern U.S. along with southern Florida.  By the end of February, KBDI–indicated conditions had worsened in southern Texas, but improved in northern California.  Elsewhere, conditions remained relatively unchanged throughout the month.

Links to KBDI Maps:
[ February 1  |  February 16  |  March 1 ]


Special Summary of Bushfire Activity in Southeastern Australia

A severe and widespread outbreak of bushfire activity in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria took place during February.  These fires occurred in conjunction with a record–setting heat wave across the state, according to a special statement (pdf document) released by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, as well as on the heels of a 13–year drought that brought Melbourne less than 0.16 inch (4 mm) of rain since January 1st.

According to preliminary reports from the Victoria Department of Sustainability and Environment over 1,111,970 acres (450,000 hectares) were burned between February 7th and March 6th.  Approximately 10,000 people were displaced by the fires that completely destroyed several towns and razed more than 2,000 homes and businesses.  The death toll from the fires was 210 as of March 4th, and is expected to climb further as forensic analysis continues.  Several of the fires are believed to have been deliberately set, and a many of the dead perished after delaying evacuation until it was too late to escape the fast moving flames, according to reports.

The Australian government noted that fatalities from this outbreak were the worst on record, far exceeding the 75 deaths in the February 16th, 1983 "Ash Wednesday" fire event and the 71 of the "Black Friday" outbreak of January 13th, 1939.  The Black Friday bushfires scorched approximately 5 million acres (2 million hectares), while the Ash Wednesday outbreak burned 513,979 acres (208,000 hectares) and remains Australia's most costly bushfire event in terms of property losses.  In response to a request by Australia for assistance, the United States sent 60 wildfire specialists to aid in the operations, planning and logistics of battling the widespread fire activity.


Citing This Report

NOAA National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate: Wildfires for February 2009, published online March 2009, retrieved on November 20, 2014 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/fire/2009/2.