Expert: Wildfire Management No Longer a 'Seasonal Job' - NBC4 Washington

Expert: Wildfire Management No Longer a 'Seasonal Job'

As the Mendocino Complex wildfires continue to grow, 

What’s changed about wildfires in recent years is they occur year-round, according to USDA Forest Service’s Director of Fire and Aviation Management Shawna Garza.
“Generally speaking, when I was first hired it was sort of a seasonal job, fires happened in different parts of the country in a particular time of year,” Legarza said. “What I’ve seen since 2011: fires have started to burn outside of their typical monthly time period.”
Legarza said in her 30 years of experience of wildland fire management, she noticed an increase in acreage burned by year in the mid-90s. Data from the United States Geological Survey going back to 2006 shows an uptick in number of acres burned and an increase in year-round occurrence of wildfires:

Wildfires have scorched at least 5 million acres in the U.S. in 2018. In 2010, the total acreage was just over 3.4 million for the entire year. Experts say this reflects a trend, as wildfires have been burning larger swaths of land from year to year.

Shawna Legarza, who leads the USDA Forest Services’ Fire and Aviation Management department, says the increase may be due to the fact that wildfire "seasons" are getting longer; now, blazes burn nearly year-round.

"When I was first hired, it was sort of a seasonal job: Fires happened in different parts of the country in a particular time of year," Legarza said. "What I've seen since 2011 — fires have started to burn outside of their typical monthly time period."

In Recent Years, Wildfires Rage Year-Round

This data reflects the total acreage of fires burning in the U.S. by day since 2008. The totals shown are the sum of the areas of fire perimeters as tracked by various state agencies.

Source: The U.S. Geological Survey
Credit: Sam Hart/NBC

Legarza has worked in wildfire management for 30 years, and she says she has observed an increase in acreage burned from year-to-year since the mid-1990s. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey support Legarza's observation: USGS measurements from 2006 forward show an uptick in acres burned and an increase in year-round occurrence of wildfires.

Legarza explained that there are three elements that determine wildfire behavior: fuels, weather and topography. Officials call it "the fire triangle."

While the U.S. has a robust inter-state wildfire response system, Legarza said the lengthening fire seasons are leaving state agencies "tapped out."

Legarza emphasized the importance of individual prevention measures, noting that many wildfires in recent years were human-caused.

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