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Wildfire Management

Drought can be a contributing factor to wildfire. Dry, hot, and windy weather combined with dried out (and more flammable) vegetation can increase the probability of large-scale wildfires.

Wildfire Conditions

This map shows U.S. active wildfires alongside current drought conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, active wildfires also include fires that have been 100% contained (i.e., a control line has been completed around the fire, stopping the fire's spread) but that have not been fully extinguished. Learn more.

The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center produces daily fire weather outlooks, which delineate areas of the continental U.S. where pre-existing fuel conditions, combined with forecast weather conditions, will result in a significant threat for the ignition and/or spread of wildfires. This map shows the 1-day fire weather outlook. Learn more.

Active Wildfires

The color with the hex code #6d3b95 identifies:
Active Fire

U.S. Drought Monitor

The color with the hex code #ffff00 identifies:
D0
The color with the hex code #ffcc99 identifies:
D1
The color with the hex code #ff6600 identifies:
D2
The color with the hex code #ff0000 identifies:
D3
The color with the hex code #660000 identifies:
D4

Forecast Risk of Fire Weather

The color with the hex code #ffb67b identifies:
Elevated
The color with the hex code #fe7677 identifies:
Critical
The color with the hex code #fe7afb identifies:
Extremely Critical
The color with the hex code #bd9989 identifies:
Isolated Dry Thunderstorms
The color with the hex code #fe7576 identifies:
Scattered (Critical) Dry Thunderstorms
Updates Daily  -  01/25/21
Updates Daily  -  01/25/21
44
counties with active wildfires
10.3 Million
acres burned by fire in 2020
$
1.6 Billion
spent on federal wildfire suppression in 2019
651,642
people within 10 miles of an active wildfire
Key Issues

Drought and Wildfire Interactions

The relationship between drought and fire is complex. The timing, intensity, and frequency of drought events have divergent impacts on fuel flammability and fire behavior. Rapidly drying abundant fuels in forest understories and grasslands after a wet spring can feed larger fires. Prolonged drought can limit fire occurrence as the availability of fuels (e.g., grasses) is reduced due to lack of precipitation.

Reducing Risk

The risk of wildfire can be reduced in some forests in the West and South by thinning trees, prescribed burning, and letting fires that will not affect people burn. There are also actions that individual homeowners can take to create a defensible space, an area around a building/property in which vegetation, debris, and other types of combustible fuels have been treated, cleared, or reduced to slow the spread of fire to and from the building.

Cascading Impacts of Drought and Wildfire

Drought can impact drinking water supply, agriculture, and human health. When wildfire hits in drought-stricken areas, watersheds and reservoirs can be further impacted by ash and debris flows, water treatment facilities may shut down with damage or loss of power, crops can be destroyed, and smoke can affect animal and human health.

Drought in a Changing Climate

Drought, combined with warming temperatures, can result in decreased snowpack and streamflow, increased evaporative demand, dry soils, and large-scale tree deaths, which results in increased risk for large wildfires.

Drought Impacts on Wildfire Management

Wildfire—a critical ecosystem process—is a global phenomenon with natural (lightning) and human-caused sources of ignition. During drought conditions, fuels for wildfire, such as grasses and trees, can dry out and become more flammable. Drought can also increase the probability of ignition and the rate at which fire spreads. 

Drought can be intensified by unusually warm temperatures. When combined with very low precipitation and snowpack, extreme heat can lead to decreased streamflow, dry soils, and large-scale tree deaths. These conditions create increased risk for extreme wildfires that spread rapidly, burn with more severity, and are costly to suppress. 

Wildfire risk can be reduced by reducing stand density (thinning), using prescribed burning, and letting some fires burn if they will not affect people. Frequent prescribed burning in fire-prone and fire-dependent (forests that require fire to maintain structure and function) southern forests has been a socially accepted practice for decades, illustrating how wildfire risk can be reduced. In some instances, drought can actually reduce wildfire risk by reducing the amount of vegetation that is available to burn.

Even with these existing practices to reduce risk, wildfires continue to challenge fire suppression efforts and budgets. Projected warmer temperatures and a possible increase in the frequency of drought in some regions may require rethinking historical approaches to fire management. If drought-caused wildfire activity increases in the wildland-urban interface, suppression costs will also increase, potentially altering perceptions of management and risk in fire-prone human communities. Therefore, fire professionals have a need for drought information for fire behavior forecasts and long-term fuel management planning. 

In an effort to provide that information, the NIDIS Drought and Wildland Fire Nexus (NDAWN) strategy was developed to improve the use of drought information by wildland fire management, air quality managers, fire meteorologists, and fire behavior analysts, and to enhance and develop products to improve firefighter safety, public health and safety, fuel treatment effectiveness pre- and post-fire, and meet overall land management objectives. Broader planning and preparedness topics, including preventing economic and infrastructure losses, are addressed in NDAWN as well. 

Drought Early Warning for the Wildfire Management Sector

Wildland fire managers, fire meteorologists, and fire behavior analysts have an increasing need for drought information to be incorporated into fire-related forecasts and long-term fuel management planning. Drought early warning information is essential to improve firefighter and public health safety, to increase fuel treatment effectiveness pre- and post-fire, and to better understand post-fire recovery. The resources below are organized by the key components of a drought early warning system: (1) drought observation and monitoring; (2) drought planning and preparedness; (3) prediction and forecasting of drought; (4) communication and outreach to the public and affected sectors;  and (5) interdisciplinary and applied research on topics of concern to drought-affected sectors.

Related Content

Data & Maps | Fire

View information on current and predicted outlooks for fire risk, potential, and occurrence, as well as specific fire-related drought indices and impact reports.