This analysis compares the publicly reported loss metrics (e.g., deaths, injuries, dollar losses and acres burned) from media and government sources for 6 named wildfires between 2016 and 2018 with the data reported by local fire departments to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).
The 6 wildfires were selected by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to reflect a diversity of wildland urban interface (WUI) conditions, land management responsibilities, locations, terrains and climates:
- Chimney Tops 2, Tennessee, 2016.
- Northwest Oklahoma Complex, Oklahoma/Kansas, 2017.
- West Mims, Georgia/Florida, 2017.
- Spring Creek, Colorado, 2018.
- Woolsey, California (Southern), 2018.
- Camp, California (Northern), 2018.
Overall, the data in the NFIRS for these wildfires significantly understates the publicly reported losses except for acres burned, which was often overreported in the NFIRS.
For 3 of the wildfires — Chimney Tops 2, Woolsey and Camp — over one-quarter of the area affected by the fire was WUI. For purposes of this report, WUI areas are defined as census tracts where housing density is greater than 1 housing unit per 40 acres and either half the census tract is vegetation or it is within 1.5 miles of a large area (over 1,235 acres) that is at least 75% vegetated.3 Notably, the number of fire incidents reported to the NFIRS had no relationship to the share of the affected area that was WUI. In other words, wildfires with high WUI shares may be expected to have a larger number of NFIRS reports, but this was not the case.
Within the wildfire boundaries of the Chimney Tops 2, Woolsey and Camp fires, most of the NFIRS-reported incidents were from within WUI areas. This reinforces the principle that extra attention should be placed on planning for wildfires in WUI areas. However, in the Woolsey and Camp fires, far more incidents were reported to NFIRS from outside the wildfire boundary. Some of these incidents may have actually occurred within the wildfire boundary but lacked precise address information for accurate geocoding. Others — particularly emergency medical services (EMS) and other incidents — may have been service calls related to the wildfire.