In terms of sheer numbers, fire season 2004 is a hot one. By early September, more than 7.5 million acres had burned in the United States–more than double the 10-year average–and fire danger in some areas had yet to peak. However, the vast majority of those acres were the result of wildfires in one state. As of September, 7,652 fires had burned more than 6.4 million acres and 29 structures in Alaska, far more than the previous record of 5.05 million acres set in 1957.
Joe Ribar, a fire staff officer with the Alaska Fire Service, said the 10-year average in the state is 514 fires and 782,582 acres burned by September 7. Hot, dry weather is to blame for the high numbers this year.
“We’ve been under the influence of a high-pressure area for the majority of the summer and have received less-than-average precipitation throughout June, July, and August,” he said.
The Alaska Climate Research Center in Fairbanks reported that July and August temperatures were from 3.6 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal around the state. Precipitation totals were 20 to 70 percent below normal in most of the state, allowing the fire season to extend into September.
Ribar said crews from throughout the United States bolstered Alaska’s state and federal firefighting resources.
“At one point we had more than 2,200 people on the fire lines,” he said. “We used all of the available Type 2 crews, and for the first time in our history brought in 15 Type 2 crews and 20 Type 1 crews from the lower 48 states.”
Although 82 fires were burning on September 7, a cooler, wetter weather pattern was expected to develop.
“The high pressure in Alaska has started to break up over the last few days, and it looks like that may be a season-ending event,” said Randy Eardley, a public affairs officer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “Outside of Alaska, it’s been substantially lighter than what we had anticipated going into the fire season,” said Eardley. “We had all of the conditions for a serious fire season, but we ended up not getting the ignitions. The typical lightning storms just didn’t develop this year.”
Eardley said the number of fires in the lower 48 states–55,773 as of September 7–was down about 10 percent from the average, and slightly more than 1.2 million acres had burned, just 36 percent of the norm over the previous decade.
In the Southwest, Arizona and New Mexico have had large fires–Arizona’s Willow Fire, at 119,500 acres, was the largest.
In the Pacific Northwest, cool and moist spring conditions lasted well into June, making for a late start of the fire season, according to John F. Saltenberger, a fire weather forecaster with the National Weather Service in Portland, Oregon.
“In my opinion, Oregon and Washington got lucky this fire season,” said Saltenberger. “The region had fewer thunderstorms than normal, and the great majority of them came with generous rainfall.”
California has had a relatively active fire season, according to Karen Terrill, chief public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“We certainly are ahead of our 10-year averages, in terms of the number of fires and acres burned,” she said. “We’re having a very significant fire season, and the most extreme part of the season is ahead of us.”
As of September 5, the number of fires in California was at 6,012, nearly 1,000 more than the five-year average. The 172,222 acres that had burned by September 5 was about three times the average.
The fire season in Southern California often peaks in September and October, when Santa Ana winds from the east dry out an already parched forest and chaparral in the coastal hills.
“It has not been extraordinarily hot this year, but this is the fifth year of drought in Southern California, so the relative humidity and fuel moistures have hit record lows in some areas,” said Terrill. “The caveat is, look at what happened in California last year,” said Eardley. “California is still looking at some very hot, dry conditions.”
Last year, a “fire siege” in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas between October 21 and mid-November burned 750,000 acres, killed 22 people, and destroyed 3,600homes.
A firefighter battles flames on Alaska’s Camp Creek Fire. As of September 6, the fire had burned 175,315 acres.