Wildfire season was marked by huge tragedy, fewer fires

Wildfire season was marked by huge tragedy, fewer fires

26 November 2013

published by www.app.com

USA — As the U.S. 2013 wildfire season comes to an end, it will be remembered for being unusually quiet for the number of blazes but one of the deadliest for firefighters.

The tragic Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona killed 19 firefighters, the highest death toll for a single fire in 80 years. Colorado endured its most destructive wildfire in state history. And the Rim Fire — a massive blaze near the entrance to iconic Yosemite National Park — was the largest ever in the Sierra Nevada.

Even so, the number of wildfires nationwide hit a 30-year low, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise: As of Friday, just over 43,000 fires had been reported across the country so far this year, according to the fire center.

That is well below the 10-year average of nearly 68,000 fires and the lowest number since accurate record keeping began in the early 1980s, the fire center reports. The number of acres burned was also well below average.

Weather cooperated

The low number of fires and acres burned were due in part to fortuitous weather conditions: 2013 had neither of the atmospheric circulations usually associated with active wildland fire seasons, meaning the nation was neither in an El Nino nor a La Nina climate pattern, according to Ken Frederick, deputy chief of external affairs with the fire center.

Additionally, Southern California didn’t get the fire-fanning Santa Ana winds this fall, and Northern California received substantial rain toward the end of summer, he said.

“These factors, to some degree, resulted in a quiet year in terms of the acres burned and the number of fires,” he added

Meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm, noted that by late summer, a very active Southwest monsoon pattern brought plentiful rainfall and moisture across the West.

“In fact, the July-September period was the wettest in 119 years for the Four Corners region,” he said.

Homes threatened

Though there were fewer fires, they got a lot of attention because they were so dramatic and close to habitable areas.

“The impacts of wildfire in the U.S. are not reliant strictly on the number of fires,” said Michele Steinberg of the National Fire Protection Association. “The fires happened where people are living,” affecting their safety and even their drinking water.

In 2013, fires occurred “in or near urban/suburban areas such as Black Forest, Colo., and Prescott, Ariz., and fires impacting major watersheds that provide drinking water to metropolitan areas (San Francisco),” she said.

The 19 firefighters who died fighting the Yarnell fire in Arizona brought the national death toll to 34, the most since 1994, when 34 also died, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Jones of the U.S. Forest Service.

A year like this may be “the new normal,” said Steinberg. “We’ve developed all of the desirable areas, and now we’re moving into fire-prone regions.”

As a result of the warming climate, there may be a reduction in the overall number of fires in the West, but the ones that form tend to be much larger, according to a recent report from the Arizona Department of Forestry.

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