The 2023 wildfire season in the U.S. was one of high contrast.
Overall, it was the smallest number of acres burned in more than two decades, but the U.S. also saw its deadliest wildfire in over a century.
“We are coming to the end of – at least on paper – one of the most quiet wildfire seasons that we have seen in a generation,” Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the Department of Agriculture, said in a recent agency broadcast.
The numbers show a wildfire season with more than 2.6 million acres burned as of December, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. It’s the lowest number dating back to 1998, when 1.3 million acres were burned.
The number of fires in 2023 was lower than in 2022 but was similar to the 10-year average, according to the center. So while the number of fires documented was close to average, they weren’t as destructive this year.
Several factors played a part in this wildfire season. High levels of precipitation and snowfall kept the western U.S. mostly out of trouble.
“Take the West out of the equation, reduce the number of fires, the acreage – that can really knock down those national numbers,” Rippey said.
Cal Fire San Diego Captain Thomas Shoots says that California “caught a lot of breaks” this fire season. Even though the state still had quite a few wildfires, officials were able to keep them relatively small, he says.
“We are certainly not out of the woods,” Shoots says. “We have a year-round fire season.”
Still, California’s experience was a stark contrast to its companions to the North and West.
In Canada, about 45 million acres burned in a historic wildfire season that displaced thousands of people and sent smoke across the U.S.
And in Maui, the fires that decimated the town of Lahaina marked the fifth deadliest blaze in U.S. history, killing more than 100 people.
“Even in what seems like a relatively quiet wildfire season, we can still have significant tragedy and deadly wildfires,” Rippey said.
Seasonal conditions like precipitation play a large role in determining how the wildfire season will go. But climate change is also affecting wildfire season length, frequency and severity.
“We’re heating up the atmosphere, heating up the oceans, and we’re conducting a really interesting experiment because we’re in it,” says Neal Driscoll, principal investigator of the ALERTCalifornia program at the University of California San Diego, where he is a professor of geology and geophysics.
It’s impossible to know exactly what 2024’s wildfire season will look like, but fire experts say not to get complacent after this season. Shoots warns that wildfire season is “not what it used to be,” citing massive blazes across Northern California like the Camp Fire in 2018 that killed 85 people and the Dixie Fire that burned more than 960,000 acres in 2017.
“These are not the fires that your grandparents may have seen,” Shoots says. “We’re in a different world now, and we have different struggles, and we need to be prepared for these mega fires whether they happen or not.”