June 23, 2015
Wildfires are unplanned and unwanted fires, including
lightning-caused fires, unauthorized human-caused fires,
and escaped prescribed fire projects. States are responsible
for responding to wildfires that begin on nonfederal (state,
local, and private) lands, except for lands protected by
federal agencies under cooperative agreements. The federal
government is responsible for responding to wildfires that
begin on federal lands. The Forest Service (FS)—within the
U.S. Department of Agriculture—carries out wildfire
management and response across the 193 million acres of
the national forest system. The Department of the Interior
(DOI) manages the wildfire response for more than 400
million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and
preserves, other public lands, and Indian reservations.
Wildfire statistics help to illustrate past U.S. wildfire
activity. Nationwide data compiled by the National
Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) indicate the number of
wildfires has stayed about the same over the last 30 years,
but the number of acres burned annually has increased (see
Figure 1). Every year since 2000, an average of 74,000
wildfires burned an average 6.6 million acres. This is nearly
double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s (3.6
million acres), although a greater number of fires occurred
annually (83,000 on average).
Table 1. Annual Wildfires and Acres Burned
No. of Fires (thousands)
Figure 1. Annual Wildfires and Acres Burned
Notes: Data reflect wildland fires and acres burned nationwide,
including wildland fires on federal and nonfederal lands.
Over the last 10 years, nearly 6.9 million acres burned
annually on average. The last 2 years have been below that
average, with 3.6 million acres burned in 2014 and 4.3
million acres burned in 2013, the second- and third-fewest
acres burned annually since 2005. (The least was 3.4
million acres in 2010).
The fires in 2013 and 2014 also burned fewer acres than
those in 2011 (8.7 million acres) and 2012 (9.3 million
acres), which represent the third- and fourth-largest
amounts of acreage burned since 1960. The eight largest
fire years since 1960 have occurred since 2000, ranging
from more than 7 million acres burned to nearly 10 million
Figure 2. Top Ten Years with Largest Wildfire
Acreage Burned Since 1960
Acres Burned (millions)
Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
Notes: Federal includes fires that began on land managed by the
Forest Service (FS), Department of the Interior (DOI), and other
federal agencies. Nonfederal includes all other lands. Column totals
may not add due to rounding.
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In 2014, 60% of the nationwide acreage burned by wildfires
was on federal lands (2.2 million acres; see Table 1). The
other 40% of the acreage burned occurred on state, local, or
privately owned lands, but it also accounted for most of the
fires (50,570). Of the federal acreage burned nationwide in
2014, 56% (1.24 million acres) burned on DOI land and
40% (0.87 million acres) burned on FS land (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Percentage of Acreage Burned
Wildfires can have a devastating impact, especially for
those communities affected by wildfire activity. Therefore,
statistics showing the level of destruction a wildfire causes
can be useful. Some more easily quantifiable measures
include acres burned, lives lost (firefighters and civilians),
structures destroyed, and suppression costs for a specific
wildfire. There is no single source for this type of
destruction data. Multiple federal and state organizations
collect different data. Therefore, the data can usually be
found, but in a piecemeal fashion. Firefighter personnel
data for the FS and DOI, firefighter fatalities, and structures
burned are provided in Table 2.
Table 2. FS and DOI Personnel and Loss Statistics
More wildfires occur in the East (including the central
states), but more acreage burns in the West (including
Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana,
New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and
Wyoming). In 2014, 42,000 fires burned fewer than 1
million acres in the East, compared with 20,000 wildfires
that burned nearly 3 million acres in the West (see Table
1). In the East (where there is less federal acreage), most of
the fires occur on nonfederal lands, while in the West most
of the fires occur on federal lands (see Figure 4). In 2014,
there were slightly fewer than 10,000 fires across nearly 2
million acres of western federal land. In the East, there were
more than 3,000 fires across 197,000 acres of federal land.
Figure 4. Acreage Burned by Region and Landowner
Source: Agency budget justifications and agency emails. Firefighter fatalities
data from the NIFC’s Historical Wildland Firefighter Fatality Reports and the
National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Fatalities, Entrapments and Serious
Accident Summary Safety Grams. Structures burned year-end totals from the
NIFC Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics Annual Report 2014.
Notes: Firefighter fatalities and structures burned reflect calendar-year data.
Structures include primary residences, commercial buildings, outbuildings, and
Only a small fraction of wildfires become catastrophic, and
a small percentage of fires accounts for the vast majority of
the acres burned. For example, only about 1% of wildfires
become conflagrations—raging, destructive fires—but
predicting which fires will “blow up” into conflagrations is
challenging and depends on a multitude of factors, such as
weather and geography. In 2014, only 1% of the wildfires
were classified as large or significant (666). Nine of those
fires exceeded 40,000 acres in size; four exceeded 100,000
acres. Of the more than 1 million wildfires that have
occurred since 2000, approximately 150 exceeded 100,000
acres and 12 exceeded 500,000 acres.
CRS Report R43077, Wildfire Management: Federal
Funding and Related Statistics.
CRS Report R44082, Wildfire Spending: Background,
Issues, and Legislation in the 114th Congress
Notes: West = Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho,
Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and
Wyoming. East = all other states, including Puerto Rico.
Katie Hoover, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-9008
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