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U.S. endures near-record wildfire season

5:59 PM, Nov 12, 2012   |    comments
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Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

November 12. 2012 - Nationally, the scorching heat and relentless drought this year helped spark a disastrous wildfire season.

For only the third time on record, the total number of acres burned due to wildfires across the country so far this year has topped 9 million, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

The area scorched, as of Friday - 9,101,461 acres - is roughly the size of the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

"Since 1960, when we began keeping good records, surpassing 9 million acres burned has only happened three times: this year, 2006 and 2007," reports Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

With more than seven weeks of fall and winter weather left in the year, he says it's unlikely that we'll break the record set in 2006, when 9.8 million acres burned. (In 2007, 9.3 million acres were charred.)

Acres burned is only one way of measuring a wildfire season's ferocity, though: Tragically, wildfires have killed 13 firefighters and civilians to date this year, Eardley reports. He says this exceeds the number of deaths in all of 2011, but is well below the 10-year average of 18.

Some of the worst fires were in Colorado, which endured both its most and second-most destructive wildfires in state history in June, and in Oregon, which had its largest fire in state history in July, the National Climatic Data Center reports. The worst month nationally was August, when more than 3.6 million acres burned, the highest single month since 2000.

Structure losses are another measure of fire season severity, and for the 346 homeowners who lost their homes to Colorado Springs' "Waldo Canyon" fire alone, 2012 is arguably the worst fire season ever, says Eardley.

"Good Lord ... I've never seen anything like this," C.J. Moore said in July upon returning to her Colorado Springs home, which had been reduced to ashes.

Overall, to date in 2012, 2,125 homes nationally have been consumed by wildfire, which is well below the yearly average losses of 2,600 homes.

By way of comparison, a single fire in 1991 in the hills of Oakland burned more than 3,000 homes, he says.

As for economic damages, there has been slightly more than $1 billion in economic losses from wildfires in the USA so far this year, according to Steve Bowen, meteorologist with global reinsurer Aon Benfield.

He says many of the losses were in Colorado, with the Waldo Canyon Fire being the costliest U.S. wildfire in 2012. That blaze caused roughly $500 million in economic losses (most of which were insured), and also became the costliest and most destructive wildfire in state history.

"Several other Western and Central states saw an elevated number of wildfires as well, which can almost certainly be correlated with the severe drought," Bowen reports "Given the severity of the drought and the amount of acres burned this year, it's somewhat remarkable that we have not seen even more wildfire damage."

To put this year into context, he says, U.S. wildfire losses are actually down from the approximate $1.5 billion sustained in 2011. However, this year's losses are generally in line with the 10-year average (2002-2011) of $1.2 billion.

Ferocious wildfire seasons seem to be more common now: "With only a couple of exceptions, the past decade has tended to see more severe fire seasons with high numbers of acreage burned," Eardley says. "This is largely due to a combination of extended drought conditions, high temperatures, accumulations of fuel, and continued growth of wildland-urban interface areas."

Why so many active seasons? A report earlier this fall by the environmental group Climate Central found that these types of furious fire seasons may be the norm in years to come, thanks to climate change: "In the past 40 years, rising spring and summer temperatures, along with shrinking winter snowpack, have increased the risk of wildfires in most parts of the West," the report noted.

The Climate Central report cited a study by the National Research Council, which noted that for every degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could quadruple.

The past decade has been particularly hot in the US: Four of the nation's warmest eight years on record have occurred since 2001, the climate data center reports.

However, Eardley adds that in the remote areas where wildfires burned this year, the news isn't always bad: "With the removal of so much fuel, we don't anticipate fires there again. The reduced fuel areas act as fire breaks," he says, "and generally are a benefit to fighting future fires."

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