2012 Marks Extraordinary Year for US Wildfires
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is the nation's support center for wild land firefighting and provides up-to-date reports on current forest fires. While the NIFC has been collecting data for the past 50 years, records maintained by the center and by NASA both indicate that 2012 was an extraordinary year for wildfires in the United States.
NIFC statistics show that more than 9.1 million acres had burned as of December 7, 2012—the third highest total in the record that dates back to 1960. The statistics also report that despite the high number of acres burned in 2012, the total number of fires—over 56,000—was low, compared to the other years on the NIFC record. Data also concludes that the average fire size in 2012 was the highest on the record.
Louis Giglio, a scientist based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, helps maintain another fire record of area burned per year that is part of the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED), an ongoing effort to track the world's fire emissions. The GFED records are based largely on data acquired by the two Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. Giglio said that 2012 will almost certainly break the GFED record. Giglio also stated: "This type of long-term fire monitoring will only become more important as the climate changes and certain regions prone to fire become drier."
Looking at records from longer time periods will be useful to researchers who can study these trends and start predicting which regions need to be better managed so wildfires do not spread. Also of importance is where prescribed burnings (intentional fires that remove underbrush and agricultural waste) have occurred so foresters can better mange these areas.
The newly released map depicts fires that burned between January 1 and October 31, 2012, as detected by the MODIS instruments and data collected by NASA satellites. While one would assume that red would depict stronger forest fires, for this graphic, yellow and orange indicates fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning. Most of these intense fires occurred in the western United States, where lightning and human activity often sparks blazes that firefighters cannot contain. Many of the lower intensity fires shown in red were prescribed fires, lit for either agricultural or ecosystem management purposes.
For more information see NASA Earth Observatory.
Fire map image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.