Crazy numbers? Wildfire reporting isn't as easy as it might seem

Blog Post created by mikehazell Employee on Jan 13, 2014

Alert Fire Break reader Dick Mangan of Missoula, Montana, contacted us about the December issue in which he pointed out the significant difference between annual wildfires reported to NIFC (see "Wildfire drop but don't stop in 2013") in the top article, and immediately following, NFPA's Brush, Grass & Forest Fires study with numbers derived through NFIRS (the National Fire Incident Reporting System). At first glance, these numbers do look "crazy," as Dick pointed out in his email. 

There's a reason that NIFC's average number of wildfires from 2007-2011 is about 77,900, and NFIRS estimates are showing more than 334,000 annual brush, grass and forest fires. Definitions are part of it, but one of the major factors is who is reporting the fires and through what system. NIFC's data comes from situation reports on individual incidents from state and federal firefighting agencies. The NFIRS data is derived from annual reports
from more than 23,000 US fire departments. Analysis of this large database (the world's largest national annual database of fire incidents) requires the use of estimates in reporting.

NFPA's study provides a good explanation of the differences between the two systems, and notes that "an unknown portion of the fires included in their [NIFC's} statistics were also handled by local fire departments and are also counted in NFPA’s estimates. At present, the different data collections systems are independent and it is not possible to confidently connect them."

One of the interesting things about NFPA's study is that it tells the non-federal lands side of the wildfire story that also is, largely, a story about fires outside the Western states. Thousands of fires are occurring annually on lands where local fire departments are the first (and often only) responders. They might be small fires and they might not burn down homes every time, but significant local resources are applied to responding and fighting these fires. 

NFPA has been working over the last couple of years to engage with all of the interested parties in the important work of more accurate and integrated wildfire data collection and reporting. There have been great collaborative efforts among federal, state and local partners thus far. NFPA's Hylton Haynes is exploring how NFPA might help improve the NFIRS framework through such means as updating its standard for incident reporting and fire protection data (see www.nfpa.org/901). 

For more about how NFPA crunches the NFIRS numbers, see the study's Appendix C or feel free to contact NFPA's Fire Analysis & Research Division.

- by NFPA's Michele Steinberg