Wildfires - Annual 2012



Please note: Material provided in this report is chosen subjectively and included at the discretion of the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). The ability to report on a given event is limited by the amount of information available to NCDC at the time of publication. Data included in this report are preliminary unless otherwise stated. Links to supporting information are valid at the time of publication, but they are not maintained or changed after publication.


Updated: 07 January 2013


2000-2012 Annual U.S. Wildfire Counts
2000–2012 Annual U.S. Wildfire Counts
Data Source: NIFC

2012 marked the warmest year on record for the contiguous U.S. in a period of record that dates back to 1895. The record-breaking warmth was paired with exceptional dryness across much of the nation. Drier-than-average conditions were experienced from the Rockies to the East Coast. Nebraska and Wyoming each had their driest year on record. Meanwhile, wetter-than-average conditions existed in the Pacific Northwest, the central Gulf Coast, and New England. By September's end, the percentage of the country experiencing moderate-to-exceptional drought peaked at about 64.6 percent for the contiguous U.S. (about 54 percent including Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico), according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The wildfire activity of 2012 supplanted 2011's rank as third most acres burned, behind the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Although the number of fires was below-average, the size of the fires was notably increased. The annual fire size of 137.1 acres was the most since 2000 for any January through December period, which was about 1.5 times the 10-year average (based on 2001-2010). Large wildfires occurred in New Mexico (largest in state history), Colorado (second largest in state history), and Oregon (largest since the 1860s). Overall, the number of fires remained below-average for 19 of the past 20 months (every month since May 2011, with the exception of January 2012). The month of January saw elevated wildfire activity as the result of combined warmth and dryness in the Great Plains, and a lack of snow pack having left the grasslands of the High Plains exposed to strong winds.

Year-to-Date Wildfire Statistics*
January–December Totals Rank
(out of 13 years)
Record 2000-2010
Average
Value Year
Acres Burned 9,221,639 3ʳᵈ Most 9,873,745 2006 6,612,363
11ᵗʰ Least
Number of Fires 67,265 10ᵗʰ Most 96,385 2006 77,951
4ᵗʰ Least
Acres Burned per Fire 137.1 Most on Record 137.1 2012 85.2
13ᵗʰ Least

*Data Source: The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)


Through December 28th, the nationwide number of fires year-to-date reached 67,265 fires which was the fourth least annual number of wildfires since 2000. Texas experienced the most number of wildfires of any state during 2012 with more than 10,600 fires (about 16 percent of the national total). Nationally, the amount of acres burned was 9,221,639 during 2012, which represents about 1.5 times the 10-year average (based on 2001-2010) of 6,534,250 acres burned. The month of August saw notable wildfire activity, when the fire size reached 523.4 acres per fire (the highest for any August in the 2000-2012 record) and the acres burned in August were nearly equal to the acres burned from January through July 2012. Idaho wildfires burned the most acres of any state during the year, with over 1.5 million acres (about 17 percent of the national total). Oregon and Montana followed closely with each having in excess of 1.2 million acres burned within their respective states. During 2012 the damages from wildfires across the country will top one billion U.S. dollars.

Acres Burned during 2012
Acres Burned during 2012
Compared to 2001–2010 Average
Number of Fires during 2012
Number of Fires during 2012
Compared to 2001–2010 Average

Cumulative wildfires and prescribed burns for contiguous U.S. from January through October 2012Cumulative wildfires for contiguous U.S.
from January 1 through October 31, 2012
Source: NASA

Records maintained by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and NASA both indicate that 2012 was an extraordinary year for wildfires in the United States. The visualization in the satellite image depicts total fires that burned between January 1st and October 31st as detected by the MODIS instruments. Yellow and orange areas indicate fires that were more intense and had a larger area of active burning, which were likely produced by wildfires. Red areas represent the lower intensity of fires typically associated with prescribed burns, which are used for agricultural or ecosystem management purposes.


Significant Events in 2012

Please note, this is a list of select fires that occurred during the year. Additional fire information can be found through Inciweb.


Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico on 06 June 2012Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico
on 06 June 2012
Source: USFS Gila National Forest

Two large wildfires which began in mid-May in New Mexico, the Baldy Fire and the Whitewater Fire, merged to create the Whitewater-Baldy Fire complex. Both fires were ignited by lightning strikes in the very dry Gila National Forest in western New Mexico and resulted in the charring of nearly 300,000 acres by late June. The amount of smoke from the fire was unusually high due to the dense coniferous forests which were impacted, causing very low air quality conditions across a large area of western New Mexico. The fire surpassed the Las Conchas Fire of 2011, which destroyed over 156,500 acres, as the largest fire in New Mexico history. Aerial seeding and mulching of the high-severity burn areas were conducted as part of Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation that concluded in October when most of the trails reopened to the public.

High Park Fire in Colorado on 18 June 2012High Park Fire in Colorado on 18 June 2012
Source: USGS/NASA

Of Colorado's 252,000 acres consumed by wildfires during 2012, more than half were lost in the month of June as part of the state's worst wildfire season in a decade. Two devastating fires erupted that month including the High Park Fire, which destroyed 259 homes and nearly 87,300 acres, followed by the Waldo Canyon Fire, which destroyed 346 homes and more than 18,000 acres. One fatality was attributed to the High Park Fire — the second largest fire in Colorado's history. The Waldo Canyon Fire was deemed the most destructive fire in the state's history and resulted in two deaths.

Oregon wildfires during July 2012Oregon wildfires during July 2012
Source: NASA

As one of three major eastern Oregon wildfires during July, the Long Draw Fire scorched almost 560,000 acres of short grass and sagebrush to become the state's largest fire since the 1860s. Ignited by lightning in the Owyhee River Canyon, the wildfire destroyed rangeland, livestock, and habitats for prairie wildlife (rabbits, coyotes, grouse) in the remote area of southeast Oregon. Close to 800 firefighters with aerial support battled two other blazes, which threatened the town residents of Frenchglen (Miller Homestead Fire fueled by dry peat) and Westfall (Bonita Complex Fire fueled by sage and juniper).

Idaho wildfires during August 2012Idaho wildfires during August 2012
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Intense wildfires were concentrated in the beetle-killed forest lands of Idaho. Large fires actively burned from mid-summer through autumn. Heavy smoke from the various fires resulted in adverse air quality for area residents. Three notable fires collectively blazed over 669,200 acres of national forest during 2012, which represented about 45 percent of the state's annual total. The Halstead Fire scorched nearly 181,800 acres (late July-late October), the Mustang Complex consumed more than 340,600 acres between late July and early November, and the Trinity Ridge Fire destroyed over 146,800 acres while raging from early August through mid-October.


Citing This Report

NOAA National Climatic Data Center, State of the Climate: Wildfires for Annual 2012, published online December 2012, retrieved on December 19, 2014 from http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/fire/2012/13.