What We Learned from the 2018 Fire Season

Wyoming’s 2018 Fire Season

Wyoming experienced more than 900 wildfires that burned nearly 550,000 acres (850 square miles), and destroyed 65 homes and cabins, mostly in fires in the vicinity of Grand Teton National Park. Each of these numbers was substantially above the 2002-2016 yearly averages, and higher than the peak year of 2012.

The scale of the Wyoming fire season was small compared to California (see below), but the contributing factors were generally the same. Those factors will continue to influence fire numbers, acres burned, and structures at risk in years to come.

California’s 2018 Fire Season

2018 was the deadliest and most destructive California wildfire season on record.

  • Total number of wildfires: 8,527. Nearly 60 were over 1,000 acres
  • Total area burned: 1,893,913 acres (3,000 square miles; larger than Washakie County)
  • Total structures burned: More than 18,000 homes and commercial buildings
  • Fatalities: 98 civilians, 6 firefighters and firefighting equipment operators
  • Estimated cost: Over $3.5 billion in damages and firefighting costs

What We Learned

Discarding the various pieces of political rhetoric about the events in California, observations from various sources – in no particular order of impact – include:

  • More people living in areas of historic wildfire equals more human-caused fires.
  • Increases in available fuel in wildland that included the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).
  • Drought conditions, with some growing influence likely by climate change.
  • There was major residential construction in the WUI at locations where historic fires were large, but there were few residential structures to burn.
  • Individual structures not in compliance with accepted and recommended Firewise practices were at highest risk. And each “un-Firewise” home that was burning threatened and ignited even those nearby that were Firewise.
  • Burned communities were in historic fire-prone locations. The analogy was that homes in flood zones are subject to flooding. Homes in fire-prone landscapes are subject to wildfires.
  • Houses were not burned by a flaming front through a heavy forest. It was the ember storm from other burning structures that ignited the buildings. Aerial images of burned neighborhoods showed that many of the trees didn’t burn unless ignited by the flames of adjacent burning buildings.

All of the above factors apply to Wyoming WUI communities. Property owners and communities can mitigate all factors except periodic drought and future influences of climate change to some degree by reducing the flammability of homes and the community through land-use planning, changing construction codes for new buildings, reducing wildland fuels near WUIs, organizing Firewise Communities, and implementing Firesmart principles around individual homes and cabins.