The year of wildfires

2021 continued to be yet another year of intense and frequent wildfires for the United States. There were nearly 660,000 fires in the year ravaging over 7 million acres of land. The magnitude of these numbers is an unfortunate reality of climate change.

Since the late 1990s, there has been a transition in how wildfires propagate. Authorities are noticing a newer trend - the fires are getting out of control and it is becoming increasingly harder to contain them. While the number of fires has remained steady, they are burning for longer and are more intensive than ever. Lately, wildfires are burning twice the area than in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, some fires have gotten so bad that they create their own weather systems as was the case with the Bootleg fire in Oregon in July 2021 that showed aggressive surface spread with pyrocumulus development (literally translated as “fire clouds”), thereby influencing the weather of neighbouring regions.

Ongoing changes in temperature, drought, and snowmelt have contributed to the warmer, drier conditions that make these fires easier to ignite and difficult to fight. While the wildfire numbers for 2021 are in line with the 10-year averages, the Western part of the country saw an unusually active year, California and Oregon being the worst affected regions.

Acreage burnt due to fires. Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

Acreage burnt due to fires. Source: National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

The National Interagency Coordination Center defines significant fire incidents as those that have burnt more than 40,000 acres of land.

Among the 60,000 fires in 2021 - there were 35 significant fire incidents that collectively caused 60 per cent of all the area damage due to wildfires. More shockingly, just 5 of them collectively burned more than 2 million acres of land, an area as large as Puerto Rico. Nearly all these significant fires were concentrated in the western part of the country as can be seen below visualised on SpaceTime™.

Wildfires in the United States as visualized on SpaceTime™ from 15 July to 15 August 2021

Wildfires in the United States as visualized on SpaceTime™ from 15 July to 15 August 2021

Geographical Spread of Wildfires

In July and August, several large wildfires razed large portions of Northern California and Southern Oregon. Northern California, despite a near-normal number of fires, saw some incredibly massive fires that burned down a higher than average acreage. Moreover, the Northern Rocky Mountains spread across the states of Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah also saw both, larger and more severe fires this year.

One of the reasons for this unusual fire activity was low precipitation. According to the data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, California and the Northern Rockies had one of the driest springs in over a hundred years. This was exacerbated by record high temperatures in these regions at the end of June. Another contributing factor was the rise in lightning activity.

Drought intensity in the US in 2021. Source: The Guardian

Drought intensity in the US in 2021. Source: The Guardian

In 2021, there was a 167 per cent increase in wildfire acres burned in Northern California compared to the ten-year average while a 40 per cent increase was observed in the Northern Rockies.

The biggest among these fires was the Dixie Fire which burnt almost a million acres and caused estimated damage of 600 million dollars making it the single largest wildfire in California’s recorded history.

The chart shows the cumulative acreage of fires calculated in bi-weekly intervals

The chart shows the cumulative acreage of fires calculated in bi-weekly intervals

The second-largest fire, the Bootleg fire, burnt 400,000 acres of land in Oregon. The River Complex, Caldor, and Monument fire each burned between 200,000 and a quarter million acres in California.

Economic Cost of these Wildfires

Forest fires are not only a threat to those in the direct path of the flames; but also a significant source of GHG emissions that exacerbate climate change. While global impetus is being steered toward carbon sequestration and the Kyoto Protocol has monetized carbon emissions, CO2 emissions due to wildfires remain unaccounted for. It is essential to understand that every ton of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) released also has a cost associated with it.

In recent years, there has been growing conversation around carbon sequestration through afforestation efforts. However, along with creating carbon trading platforms, protecting existing forests from wildfires is equally important, if not more.

Historically, due to a lack of appropriate monitoring infrastructure and heavy reliance on self-reporting, emissions data was largely available in inventories that had sporadic updation cycles. Now with the growth of the upstream space industry and technological strides observed in the past few years, we can accurately track emissions from fire disasters in near real-time and finally begin to quantify their cost.

Cost of individual fires

As per Blue Sky’s calculations, The Dixie and Caldor fire that seared California in August 2021 emitted 20.4M tons of carbon dioxide on 5 August 2021 alone. While there is no current federal price for carbon in the U.S, the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act valued American carbon at $57.21 per ton in 2021.

Based on these estimates, the cost of the total emissions from 5 August 2021 alone comes to a whopping $1.16B dollars.

Emissions data for 5 August 2021 as seen on SpaceTime™

Emissions data for 5 August 2021 as seen on SpaceTime™

Annual cost to the state of California

Taking into account the astounding cost of emissions from wildfires on a single day, it does not come as a surprise that states like California bear the brunt of significant economic impacts on an annual basis.

With 2021 being yet another major fire year for the state, California observed 200K fires through the course of the year. The emissions from these fires were 200 million tons. With the aforementioned metric, the cost for these boils down to $11.4 Billion.

Long term cost of fires to major economies

One might wonder that if this is the cost of fires for just one year, what have years of forest fires cost fire-prone countries like the U.S.? According to our data, between 2015 to 2020, forest fires in the United States emitted a staggering 1.45 billion tons of carbon dioxide which means that fires cost a whopping $83 billion in the last 5 years. (Please note that this number has been taken after accounting for inflation)

Emissions data on Blue Sky Analytics’ visualisation platform, SpaceTime™

Emissions data on Blue Sky Analytics’ visualisation platform, SpaceTime™

Finding the true cost of wildfires

The final financial toll of forest fires is hence even more staggering. While calculating associated costs is a tall order, emissions pose a direct cost that can be calculated and quantified.

However, while the current approach to measuring emissions is based on perception and not reality, sensors and satellites can reveal the true cost.

Using Blue Sky’s datasets and SpaceTime, our visualization platform, we can now draw glaring insights and assist stakeholders in driving meaningful climate action by transforming the way we currently measure the cost of fires. For instance, it can be observed that an astonishing 32.5 million tons of CO2 were emitted in California on 8 September 2020 alone bringing the emission cost to around $1.86 Billion!

You can find detailed analysis of these calculations here.

Ultimately, as advocacy for smart climate investment, insurance, and policy gain traction, there is a need to re-evaluate how we quantify the true cost of forest fires. In addition to the cost of damages, we need to consider the cost of these emissions if they were offset by sequestration activities. Accurate and real-time monitoring can help with recognizing these hidden emissions and redefining net-zero pledges and carbon sequestration projects.

The message cannot be clearer. There is a huge economic cost to not addressing climate change. Delaying efforts to address it will mean calculations like these will become even more grim. Timely estimation of GHG emissions and data-driven action is therefore the need of the hour.