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Largest wildfires of the decade

  • Largest wildfires of the decade

    At least 15 people by Sept. 11 had been reported dead from the wildfires razing parts of California, Oregon, and Washington. More than 100 wildfires were counted as burning simultaneously across 12 Western states and had already  burned almost 7,000 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

    While data from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) show that the number of wildfires in the United States has gone down over the last 30 years, the number of acres burned annually has gone up. The most recently available wildfire statistics from the Federation of American Scientists (based on NIFC data) shows U.S. wildfire acreage to have increased from 3.6 million acres in 2014 to 8.8 million acres in 2018. The Ash Creek Fire of 2012 affected 249,562 acres of land, while the NW Oklahoma Complex fire of 2017 charred 779, 292 acres—making it the largest wildfire of the past decade in terms of acreage burned.

    Wildfire activity in western American forests has increased in recent decades, a change widely believed by scientists to have been largely caused by changes in the climate. Another factor could be the federal policy of the past that focused exclusively and somewhat erroneously on suppressing fires to protect the timber. Many studies suggest that this policy could have led to fire exclusion in forests, which results in a higher density of vegetation and an understory of grass and bushes. The wildfires thus get the fuel they need to burn with more intensity. Thus, a combination of climatic changes and past management practices might have made the present wildfire events so much more widespread and immense.

    Wildfires significantly impact nearby wildlife, ecosystems, communities, and businesses. In 2018, California suffered $400 billion in damage, according to AccuWeather. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent $2.9 billion to douse flames around the country. Besides the immediate damage wildfires bring, they also leave behind wreckage that takes up immense resources, time, and money to recover.

    A megafire was once considered to be one that burns more than 100,000 acres. However, Stacker's analysis of the data provided by the National Interagency Fire Center from 2010 to August 2020 reveals megafires have burned twice that size or more in terms of acres in the past decade.

    The fires featured in this gallery are ranked by the number of acres affected, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. It's important to note that the National Interagency Fire Center relies on local sources, and there is no consistent definition of what an affected acre is.

    Keep reading to learn more about the largest wildfires of the decade.

    [Pictured: A hazy San Francisco skyline is seen from Dolores Park in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 2020. More than 300,000 acres are burning across the northwestern state including 35 major wildfires, with at least five towns "substantially destroyed" and mass evacuations taking place.]

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  • #25. Carlton Complex

    - Year: 2014
    - State most affected: Washington
    - Acres affected: 256,108

    East of the Methow River, near Carlton, four fires started because of a lightning storm on July 14, 2014. These fires soon converged as one and spread over the Methow Valley, creating the Carlton Complex Fire. Within a month, the megafire had destroyed over 250,000 acres of land and was still burning. By the time the fire was contained, it had already surpassed the record of the 1902 Yacolt Fire in terms of acres burned, and the fire destroyed 322 homes in the towns of Pateros and Brewster.

    [Pictured: The Carlton Complex wildfire burning in north-central Washington, July 21, 2014.]

  • #24. Rim

    - Year: 2013
    - State most affected: California
    - Acres affected: 257,314

    The Rim Fire started on Aug. 17, 2013, in Stanislaus National Forest, west of Yosemite National Park in California, and it was contained by October. However, for the park staff, the aftermath of the fire was more worrisome. The burned land was prone to erosion as well as flooding, which could affect the water quality. The trees could be hazardous too if they fell on the nearby roads and rail lines.

    While the forests were burning, the Rim Fire also threatened towns hundreds of miles away. According to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy group, air quality warnings were issued for Lake Tahoe, Carson City, and Reno, over 100 miles away. The governor of the city of San Francisco declared a state of emergency as the fire threatened the water and power resources of the city. It was the most massive fire in Sierra Nevada's history.

    [Pictured: Morning briefing of fire crews is held at the Drew Meadow Incident Command Post on Aug. 17, 2013.]

  • #22. Thomas (tie)

    - Year: 2017
    - State most affected: California
    - Acres affected: 270,000

    The California Office of Emergency Services called the Thomas Fire "larger than every city in California, except Los Angeles." On Dec. 4, 2017, two power lines just above Ventura rubbed together, thus creating an electric arc that started a fire.

    The fire proliferated between Ojai and Ventura, jumping Highway 150 and burning over 100,000 acres in just two days. The high winds caused the fire to move in great speed, but local experts from the forest and fire department sensed it was the thick brush that had not burned in decades that provided fuel even when the winds were down. It was officially contained on Jan. 12, 2018. The estimated loss was between $1 billion and $2.5 billion in Ventura and Santa Barbara.

    [Pictured: The growing Thomas Fire advances toward Santa Barbara County seaside communities on Dec. 10, 2017, in Carpinteria, California.]

  • #22. Lodgepole Complex (tie)

    - Year: 2017
    - State most affected: Montana
    - Acres affected: 270,000

    The biggest wildfire of 2017 was the Lodgepole Complex Fire that was reported to have started in a remote area not known to many people out of the state. The group of four fires—Bridge Coulee, Barker, South Breaks, and Square Butte formed the Lodgepole Complex. It destroyed 16 homes or ranches while burning over a quarter-million acres.

    Though the Fence Post reported that fewer cattle were lost to fires than was expected, the animals suffered from respiratory issues, and the most urgent need for ranchers was finding feed for their surviving livestock. Apart from the community, the fire also affected the core Sage Grouse habitat near Sand Springs.

    [Pictured: Rice Ridge Fire in Montana on Sept. 13, 2017.]

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  • #21. Sushgitit Hills

    - Year: 2015
    - State most affected: Alaska
    - Acres affected: 270,747

    During 2015, wild and prescribed fires burned a combined 5,150,673 acres in Alaska according to the 2015 Alaska Wildfire Emissions Inventory. This was much higher than previous records and was attributed mostly to climatic conditions such as dry spring and relatively fewer snowpacks. One of the 10 most significant fires in Alaska during this year was the Sushgitit Hills wildfire in an area where wildfires are usually allowed to burn.

    [Pictured: The Alaska National Guard fights fires from above in June 2015.]

  • #20. Soda

    - Year: 2015
    - State most affected: Idaho
    - Acres affected: 283,180

    During the summer of 2015, the Soda Fire burned nearly 280,000 acres of sagebrush ecosystems just southwest of Boise, along the border of southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. This lightning-caused fire spread rapidly, affecting vegetation, wildlife, ranchers, and local communities. The most significant environmental impact of the blaze was the loss of habitat for sage grouse, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn, and golden eagles.

    [Pictured: Soda Fire Emergency Wild Horse Gather Day 3, in Owyhee County on Aug. 28, 2015.]

  • #19. Rhea

    - Year: 2018
    - State most affected: Oklahoma
    - Acres affected: 286,196

    The Rhea Fire, located a half-mile west of Rhea, Oklahoma, began on April 12, 2018, and by April 20, 2018, the fire grew to over 280,000 acres. It was the third major fire in three back-to-back years that turned thousands of acres in the Oklahoma Plains to ashes. The Climate Signal website states that "these fires are three of the five worst fires on record in Oklahoma, going back to 1997," and the fires were fuelled by the rising temperature conditions, powerful winds, and very low relative humidity.

    [Pictured: A thick wall of smoke from the Rhea wildfire engulfs a Dewey County road in western Oklahoma.]

  • #18. Whitewater- Baldy

    - Year: 2012
    - State most affected: New Mexico
    - Acres affected: 297,845

    The Whitewater–Baldy Complex Fire started on May 9, 2012, because of a lightning strike in Catron County. There were initially two separate fires that merged on May 23 and tore through the thick coniferous forests of the Gila National Forest with the help of strong winds. Grassland fires usually emit black smoke while forest fires emit white smoke, according to NASA. As the national forest had both types of vegetation, the smoke was thicker and both white and grey.

    [Pictured: Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest on June 2, 2012.]

  • #17. Long Butte

    - Year: 2010
    - State most affected: Idaho
    - Acres affected: 306,113

    Between Aug. 21 and Aug. 29, 2010, the Long Butte Fire burned near Hagerman. On Aug. 23, approximately 215,000 acres of the 306,113 acres of the affected grassland was burned. The fire destroyed the home range of a wild horse herd and also charred three-fourths of the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. It was the most massive fire of 2010.

    [Pictured: Snake river from the Malad River overlook of U.S. 30 north of Hagerman, Idaho in October 2016.]

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  • #16. Old Grouch Top

    - Year: 2019
    - States most affected: Alaska
    - Acres affected: 307,969

    A lightning strike touched off the Old Grouch Top Fire on June 5, 2019, a few dozen miles northwest of McGrath, Alaska. The wildfire proceeded to burn 309,836 acres.

    [Pictured: A helicopter passes by as smoke rises from a wildfire on July 3, 2019, south of Talkeetna, Alaska.]

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