Wildfires are unplanned and unwanted fires, including lightning-caused fires, unauthorized human-caused fires, and escaped prescribed fire projects. States are responsible for responding to wildfires that begin on nonfederal (state, local, and private) lands, except for lands protected by federal agencies under cooperative agreements. The federal government is responsible for responding to wildfires that begin on federal lands. The Forest Service (FS)—within the U.S. Department of Agriculture—carries out wildfire management and response across the 193 million acres of the National Forest System (NFS). The Department of the Interior (DOI) manages wildfire response for more than 400 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges and preserves, other public lands, and Indian reservations.
Wildfire statistics help to illustrate past U.S. wildfire activity. Nationwide data compiled by the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) indicate that the number of annual wildfires is variable but has decreased slightly over the last 30 years and that the number of acres impacted annually, while also variable, generally has increased (see Figure 1). Since 2000, an annual average of 70,600 wildfires burned an annual average of 7.0 million acres. This figure is more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s (3.3 million acres), although a greater number of fires occurred annually in the 1990s (78,600 average).
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More wildfires occur in the East (including the central states), but the wildfires in the West are larger and burn more acreage (including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming). In 2020, nearly 26,000 wildfires burned approximately 9.5 million acres in the West, compared with the over 33,000 fires that burned just under 0.7 million acres in the East. In the East (where there is less federal acreage), most of the fires occur on nonfederal lands, whereas in the West most of the fires occur on federal lands (see Figure 4). In 2020, 81% (0.5 million acres) of the acreage burned in the East was on nonfederal land, whereas 75% (7.1 million acres) of the acreage burned in the West was on federal land.
“Wildfire Statistics,” CRS In Focus IF10244, July 15, 2021 (5-page PDF)
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