GFMC: Forest Fires in the United States

Forest Fires in the United States

14 June 2002


Wildland Fire Update
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) based in Boise (Idaho) provides key information on current wildland fire situations, related information and background materials. The following information is updated daily and can be accessed directly:

  • State-by-State daily and year-to-date summary of fire activities
  • Year-to-date State-by-State total number of wildland fires and area burned (table)
  • Daily locations of large fires (map)

The National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC)  provides daily situation reports. These reports include:

  • Incident Management Situation Reports (fires and area burned reported to NICC). The files include current, previous and archived reports
  • Prescribed Fire and Wildland Fire Use (year-to-date fires and area burned reported to NICC, posted weekly on Monday mornings)

Archived NICC Incident Management Reports (recent daily reports and archived daily reports 1994-1997) are provided by the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI)


Fire Weather & Fire Danger Information
The Wildland Fire Assessment System (WFAS) is a contribution of “The Fire Behavior Research Work Unit”, Missoula (Montana USA). The broad area component of the Wildland Fire Assessment System (WFAS) generates maps of selected fire weather and fire danger components.

Fire Danger (Potential) is a normalized adjective rating class across different fuel models and station locations. It is based on information provided by local station managers about the primary fuel model, fire danger index selected to reflect staffing level, and climatological class breakpoints. Low danger (Class 1) is green and extreme potential (Class 5) is red.

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Fire danger maps for the United States for 13June 2002 (observation time) and 14 June 2002 (forecast)
(Source: WAFS)


Dead fuel moisture responds solely to ambient environmental conditions and is critical in determining fire potential. Dead fuel moistures are classed by timelag.

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10-HR Fuel Moisture

100-HR Fuel Moisture

1000-HR Fuel Moisture

Fuel moisture maps for conterminous US, 13 June 2002
(Source: WAFS)

The Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI) is a soil/duffdrought index. Factors in the index are maximum daily temperature, dailyprecipitation, antecedent precipitation, and annual precipitation. The indexranges from 0 (no drought) to 800 (extreme drought) (details).

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Keetch-Byram Drought Index Maps for conterminous US, 13 June2002
(Source: WAFS)

Latest satellite images,
showing heat signatures and smoke plumes from fires burning in Colorado andNew Mexico:

Source:  NASA Earthobservatory, 13 June 2002

Operational Significant Event Imagery (OSEI)
The following significant events were identified by Satellite Analysis Branch meteorologists and reviewed by the OSEI support team of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

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NESDIS/OSEI NOAA-14 POES AVHRR LAC satellite images,
Heat signatures (red) and smoke plumes (light blue haze) are visible from fires burning in Colorado and Mid-Atlantic US. 
(Source: OSEI/NOAA)

Preventing forest fires

Australian fires

The Australian fires destroyed huge swathes ofland

The fires currently raging in Colorado are far from unique. 

On Thursday, a state of emergency was declared because of a blaze in Siberia, and only last year Australia suffered its worst fire in living memory.
Authorities round the world are desperate to prevent the loss of life, revenue, flora and fauna caused by forest fires. But still the fires rage on.
Robert Henricks, a policy analyst for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USDA), said that one of the most important methods of fire prevention is educating the public.
House burning in Australia

Wooden houses are especially at risk

More than four out of every five forest fires are started by people,according to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Some, like the huge blaze in Australia last year, are due to arson, butnegligent behaviour such as smoking in forested areas or failing to extinguishcampfires has caused many serious blazes.
An illegal campfire is thought to have been the cause of the current blaze inColorado. 

Special precautions
Robert Hendricks says that in arid areas such as the western United States andAustralia, the vegetation dries out in the summer, increasing the risk of fire.
Public activities such as camping are therefore prohibited at these times ofyear.
Special equipment is also needed when the risk of fire is high – trains goingthrough forested areas in western America are fitted with devices to preventsparks on the tracks, said Mr Hendricks.

House in Colorado

Houses in Colorado have been built very near the edge of forests

Another task for fire prevention officials is to remove as much dead wood aspossible from forest areas.
Firebreaks are also widely used in containing fires in the US and throughout theworld.
While they are often too expensive and unsightly to use extensively in naturalforests, they are often used in commercially forested areas, especially when thetimber is very valuable.
Fire prevention specialists frequently work in co-ordinated teams which arehighly organised.
Specially trained agents are permanently on standby, with aircrafts andfire-suppression equipment in case a fire gets out of control.
Mr Hendricks said the approach was “like a military operation”. 

As populations increase, housing encroaches on forested areas and some of themost sought-after property locations are right on the edge of the forest.
This “urban interface problem” is growing at an alarming rate in theUS. In Colorado, the population is expected to increase by 50% within 20 years,and many people will choose to live near forested land.
Robert Hendricks says that despite warnings from fire officials, people stillwant to build homes in these locations – frequently made of wood and surroundedby vegetation. “Building a house like that is the same as putting a gas canright next to a fire,” he said. 

Controlled burning
One of the most controversial methods of fire prevention is controlled burning.
During the last 100 years, people have attempted to prevent fires in a way thatnature never intended, said Mr Hendricks.
Consequently, because there are no natural fires, a build-up of dead wood anddense forest material has been allowed to accumulate – fuelling any future fireoutbreak.
“If you are too zealous at preventing fires, you finish with a forestlittered with highly flammable material,” said Charlton Clark from the UKForestry Commission.
Some areas, such as Australian bush land and the forests in the west of America,even depend on regular fires in order for certain species to regenerate. Fire isan essential part of the ecosystem.
So in recent years, fire prevention officials in the US and Australia – as wellas other dry areas such as the Mediterranean and even Siberia – haveincreasingly started controlled fires to simulate the natural fires that used tooccur.
According to the UK Forestry Commission, the practice is even used in wetterclimates like Scotland, but much less frequently. SOURCE: BBC

For more information on the recent fire situation see: Recent Media Highlights on Fire, Policies, and Politics, especially  several articles referring to the situation in Colorado.

Long-range weather forecasts
National Weather Service
Long-range, 30-day weather forecasts are predicting above-normal temperatures for the southern tier of states from southern California to Florida and throughout the Midwest (see 30 and 90-day forecast maps).

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30 and 90-day temperature and precipitation forecast maps (June2002 and June to August 2002)
(Source: National Weather Service)


The Florida Division of Forestry gives the following long-range Wildfire Season Forecast September – March 2002  for Florida:
“A return to near normal conditions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean marks the end of the prolonged La Niña event that brought very active fire seasons to the state the past few years. Normal to slightly warmer sea surface temperatures in the Pacific will bring us our first “normal” winter in a while, and if sea surface temperatures continue to slowly warm we may get above normal rainfall this winter.” 

For further information see: Wildfire Season Forecast of the Florida Division of Forestry
For further information you may also see to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

For background information on the Southern Area see the Edited Version of the Southern Area Intelligence Briefing Paper for 22 April 2001.


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