AccuWeather: Fire season in West could be bad again
If April showers bring May flowers, then what does an expansive springtime drought mean for wildfire season? According to AccuWeather meteorologists, an ominous outlook.
The significant lack of precipitation in recent months — the AccuWeather article is dated May 5 — has set the stage for a dangerous season ahead, with more than 75% of the western United States experiencing drought conditions, 21% of which is under exceptional drought, which is the most extreme level, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
After a record-smashing wildfire season in 2020, many across the western United States are still putting the pieces of their lives back together as the 2021 season is getting underway.
The dangerously dry conditions will play a crucial role in wildfire activity potentially consuming millions of acres this season, which unofficially began in May and runs to October.
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However, when those fires arrive and at what ferocity they burn will depend on a few crucial factors, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel.
Samuhel, who has decades of forecasting experience, said a drought-fueled season could be devastating. This year's season is forecast to burn 9.5 million acres of land across the western United States, which would be 130% of the five-year average and 140% of the 10-year average.
As last year's catastrophic season proved, Mother Nature couldn't care less about a global pandemic, and wildfires are forecast to once again burn an above-average area of land.
In 2020, Oregon topped the 1 million acreage mark due to six different wildfires that burned more than 100,000 acres each.
The record-breaking wildfire season devoured upward of 4.3 million acres in California alone, more than double the state's previous record. For context, three of California's four most destructive wildfire seasons on record have occurred in the past five years.
Colorado witnessed four of its largest fires in state history during the 2020 wildfire season, totaling more than 625,000 acres.
The dry conditions of the West also fueled cataclysmic wildfire seasons in Washington, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, where state records fell throughout the region.
Samuhel said the 2021 forecast doesn't look cooperative for most places.
"Unfortunately, in a nutshell, it looks like it's going to be another busy season," he said. "We're seeing a lot of drought. Almost half of the country is experiencing drought and the bulk of that is to the west."
AccuWeather forecasters "are expecting an above-average fire season," he said.
Samuhel said this season will not only be an active one for wildfires, but a potentially long-lasting one as well. A big reason for that: the extremely dry spring season that many Western states have endured, which can spell trouble, particularly in the beginning of the season.
In the Pacific Northwest, forecasters are looking at Oregon, Washington and Wyoming as areas that also could see the fire season quickly spring to life. He also pointed to the areas of the desert Southwest, especially Arizona and New Mexico, as spots where a notably warm spring could mean wildfire danger.
"Those are places that really missed out on rainfall this past year, and we're expecting a hot spring there to continue," he said.
In the first few months of the season, he said, firefighting worries likely will be focused on Arizona and New Mexico before the summer heat ramps up and spreads the risks northwest into Oregon, California and Washington.
In typical years, fire season usually reaches peak activity from south to north, and ramps up across the Pacific Northwest and interior Northwest in the second half of the summer.
"Places like Washington state, Idaho, Montana — you usually don't see a whole lot of fire activity until late July and early August," he said, but added that the rapidly evolving nature of the season should keep residents on alert.
In California, the northern half of the state is usually hit first by fires in the middle of the summer, but the worst usually are saved for the fall. The parched earth has left vegetation dry ahead of the summer, according to researchers from San Jose State University, who recently found that moisture content levels in vegetation samples were the lowest in a decade.
"Of course, California can get fires any time of the year, but fire season usually starts in northern California," Samuhel said. And by June, the fire season is underway across the state.
The worst part of the season usually occurs during late summer and fall, he said. "September and October are bad months for California fires."
Lightning, wind threats loom
The trigger of last season's most destructive disasters wasn't directly man-made, like seasons prior had been, but rather from lightning strikes. Four of the six largest California wildfires of 2020 were ignited by lightning strikes, a threat that once again looms over the 2021 season.
In August of last year, Samuhel said, thousands of lightning strikes pelted California in a matter of days, igniting a slew of fires. As the blazes merged and became a massive complex fire, the lightning worries continued and stretched northward into Oregon.
Once a wildfire has ignited, winds off the Pacific coast can spell disaster. Samuhel pointed to the post-lightning winds in 2020 that spread the August fires as one of the main culprits for fueling fires in northern California, around San Francisco, and in Oregon.
"Wind is the fire's No. 1 friend. We saw that after lightning storms in August and September," he said. "There was a huge wind event."
A similar wind outbreak could mean another record-breaking season for California. Due to massive swaths of dry tinder and the prevalence of wildfires in neighboring states, increased winds could prove particularly potent in the fall if gusts carry blazes into populated areas.
"If there's going to be another wind event like that, then this will be, by far, a record year just given how much drier it is this year than it was at this time last year," Samuhel said. "Those wind events are more likely (to occur) real late in the summer and into the fall."
Wind events also can be a key factor in southern California. The annual Santa Ana winds are high-speed and dangerous gusts that periodically kick up and blow from the mountains to the coast in southern California, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. Last season, Santa Ana winds were partially responsible for the longer-than-usual duration of the season, whipping up wide-ranging fires into December.
The unofficial season for wildfire activity stretches from May to October, but as of May 1, 2020, some 220,823 acres of wildfire destruction already had occurred, and 2020 wound up being the most destructive wildfire season in U.S. history.
In 2021, that number has more than doubled. From Jan. 1 to April 29, the preseason fire activity consumed more than 461,000 acres, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
(Editor's note: This article has been printed by permission of AccuWeather.)
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