Fire scientists: Active wildfire season looks likely

Firescientists: Active wildfire season looks likely

27 April 2007

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USA — Fire scientists preparing thisyear’s national wildfire forecast don’t expect much of a reprieve from 2006, theworst fire season in half a century.

An average or above-average year is likely, including more fires in parts ofSouthern California not already scorched in recent years, said Rick Ochoa, fireweather program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.Potential hotspots could include the Great Basin states of Nevada and Utah, andArizona if unpredictable summer monsoons miss the state.

Those areas are locked in a pattern of widespread dryness, warmertemperatures and an early melting of mountain snow in the West, Ochoa saidThursday. He is among about 30 fire experts meeting this week in Boulder, Colo.,to draft the fire outlook. The four-day session ends today.

The forecast is due out on Tuesday.

Although much of the USA may see normal conditions, a continuing worry now isthe Southeast, where severe to extreme drought grips parts of Alabama, Georgia,Florida and Mississippi. A 61,000-acre blaze in Georgia has burned for more than11 days and was only 50% contained Thursday.

“I would be very surprised if we had a light fire season,” saidOchoa, who sketched out the factors likely to influence the forecast:

*Summer heat. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center sees awarmer-than-usual spring and summer in the West. If that holds true, “theprobability of a big fire season in places like the Northwest, the NorthernRockies and Idaho is going to go up quite a bit,” Ochoa said.

*Dead forests. Bark beetle infestations continue in Colorado, Idaho andBritish Columbia. Dead or dying trees make abundant fuel for fires, but Ochoasaid those trees are more fire-prone in the first year. Needles still on thebranches make trees torches for fires to race through the treetops.

*”Carry-over” fuels. Ochoa said Nevada has above-normal firepotential because of “carry-over” grass and brush that sprouted in thewet winters of 2005 and 2006 and are ready to burn after a dry winter.

*Uncertain monsoons. The annual midsummer storms in the Southwest rarely hitArizona and New Mexico equally, Ochoa said. Arizona needs moisture, while NewMexico had a decent winter. “It’s really tough for us to call, and it willmake a huge difference,” Ochoa added. And if the monsoons are late or weak,fire season could be worse.

*Alaskan temperatures. Fall, winter and spring were dry in the state’sinterior. If temperatures are warmer than normal in May and June, that is “reallygoing to tell the tale for their fire season,” Ochoa said.

Five of the seven worst fire seasons in the past half-century have been since2000. Last year’s damage was the worst: 9.9 million acres burned. 

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