A state-by-state glance at Western fire season

A state-by-state glance at Western fire season

12 April 2012

published by www.mercurynews.com 

USA — A state-by-state look at 2012 fire season prospects for the West:

ALASKA—Ample snowpack and anticipated cooler temperatures in the south means fire season likely will not start until the end of May, later than normal, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. Snowpack is near to above normal in northern Alaska—and well above normal in south central Alaska. Longer-range forecasts suggest that colder than normal conditions will prevail across southern Alaska, while the Gulf of Alaska coast will be drier than normal, the center says.

ARIZONA—Arizona had its worst fire in history in 2011, the Wallow Fire that charred more than 840 square miles in the state and parts of New Mexico. State officials say the strong winds that fanned the fire will be less of a factor this year. But an abundance of grass in southern Arizona and drought, some of it severe, means an active season. “I’m anticipating a more normal fire season with the caveat that there’s still residual fuel from years past and, of course, there is still drought,” said Cliff Pearlberg of the Arizona State Forestry Division.

CALIFORNIA—Another active wildfire season for a state that has received little moisture this year and that in recent years has seen huge fires which destroyed hundreds of homes, especially in Southern California. Above-normal fire threats for June and July in mountain areas, the central coast and inland Southern California, according to Daniel
Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. While typical fire season runs from May through October, Southern California always is at risk. “Fire season is just about year-round now because we always have those Santa Ana winds that are always threatening,” said Los Angeles County fire Inspector Quvondo Johnson.

COLORADO—Significant fire potential across eastern Colorado’s plains, dry Rockies forests and the Western slope due to drought, low humidity and lack of precipitation. Snowpack is below normal and evaporating faster than usual. The National Weather Service has issued red flag fire warnings in many parts of the state on an almost routine basis since March 6. Multiple counties have enacted open-air fire bans.

IDAHO—Idaho expects a normal fire season—for now. The state’s mountain ranges have normal snowpack, reservoirs are dumping water for snowmelt and early spring has brought more rain and snow, even in the desert-like south. Federal wildfire analyst Jeremy Sullens cautions early predictions can change with spring precipitation and the growth of grasses and plants that provide initial fuel for forest and rangeland fires.

HAWAII—Drought has produced an above-normal wildfire potential this season along the leeward, or western, sides of the Hawaiian islands, including the western third of the Big Island. Most of the Hawaii islands have received above normal precipitation this year, including the northern and western islands, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center says.

MONTANA—State officials expect a normal 2012 after cool weather and spring floods all but eliminated the fire season last year. Mountain snowpack is at average levels and, barring a rapid warm-up, fire season is expected to run from July to September, said Bryan Henry, a meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. The state’s plains are an exception. “A couple of dry, windy days, it will be ready to burn,” Henry said.

NEW MEXICO—Fire officials are preparing for another rough year. Forecasters have been issuing fire weather watches as spring storms bring dry lightning and gusty winds to the state. More than 80 percent of the state is mired in drought, and Gov. Susana Martinez has warned 2012 could be a repeat of a destructive 2011. “What it boils right down to is the potential is still there,” says Dan Ware of the State Forestry Division.

NEVADA—An early fire season expected after a late season in 2011 that blackened 665 square miles in 815 fires. A 93-year-old woman died in a January blaze that destroyed 29 homes and forced 10,000 people to evacuate their residences outside Reno. Drought affects virtually all of the state. “We’re going to see an early fire season,” state Forester Pete Anderson says. “It pretty much hasn’t ended, frankly.”

OREGON—The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center predicts a normal fire season for Oregon. A wet spring will delay the onset of fire season but not affect its severity. Temperatures are expected to be higher and humidity lower than in 2011, which saw a below average number of fires and acres burning. Large fires typically come from lightning strikes in remote locations. “We anticipate higher temperatures, meaning lower humidity, gradually increasing fire danger up to normal levels, maybe bit above normal, through the summer of 2012,” said fire meteorologist John Saltenberger.

UTAH—Fire officials worry about large swaths of fuel, including waist-high grasses, left over from bountiful rains and snow in 2011. Already, farmers clearing land and fence lines have sparked numerous small fires. “We’re hoping to get more moisture to green things up, but we have nowhere near the rain and snow we had last spring. Things are dry and it doesn’t take much to get a fire going,” says Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

WASHINGTON—The Northwest Interagency Fire Coordination Center expects a normal fire season this year in Washington, after four straight years with below-average acres burned. The 31 square miles burned in 2011 was far below the 10-year-average of 200 square miles, in part because major lightning bursts missed the state and ran to the south through Oregon.

WYOMING—Wildfire activity higher than normal with low snowpack in mountains. National Weather Service anticipates warm, dry summer; increased lightning storms can ignite dry grasses and forests, says State Forester Bill Crapser. “It really depends on what the weather does the next couple of months here,” Crapser said.

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