|AccuWeather Global Weather Center – May 5, 2021 – If April showers bring May flowers, then what does an expansive springtime drought mean for wildfire season? According to AccuWeather expert meteorologists, an ominous outlook.The significant lack of precipitation in recent months 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 U.S. 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 runs from May to October each year.
However, when those fires arrive and at what ferocity they burn will depend on a few crucial factors. AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dave Samuhel, with his decades of forecasting experience, has the crucial preview of the dangers that lie ahead.
A drought-fueled season could be devastating
According to Samuhel, this year’s season is forecast to burn 9.5 million acres of land across the western U.S., which would be 130% of the five-year average and 140% of the 10-year average.
As last year’s catastrophic season has already 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, the record-breaking wildfire season devoured upwards 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.
Elsewhere, Colorado witnessed four of its largest fires in state history also burn during the 2020 wildfire season, totaling more than 625,000 acres, while Oregon topped the 1-million acreage mark due to six different wildfires that burned more than 100,000 acres each.
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.
Photos taken by AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell capture the hazy and fiery shadow cast by wildfires over wineries in Northern California. (AccuWeather/Bill Wadell)
As nice as it would be for places in the western U.S. to have a reprieve this year, Samuhel said the 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,” he added, noting that AccuWeather forecasters “are expecting an above-average fire season.”
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 is due to the extremely dry spring season that many Western states have endured, which can spell trouble, particularly in the beginning of the season.
He specifically 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 Pacific Northwest, forecasters are looking at Washington, Oregon and Wyoming as areas that could also see the fire season quickly spring to life.
In the first few months of the season, he said, firefighting worries will likely be focused on Arizona and New Mexico before the summer heat ramps up and spreads the risks northwestward into California, Oregon 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 saves itself for the fall. The parched earth has left vegetation dry ahead of the hot 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.
FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2020, file photo, a house burns on Platina Road at the Zogg Fire near Ono, Calif. California power regulators reprimanded Pacific Gas and Electric for continuing to neglect its electrical grid that has ignited a series of deadly wildfires in Northern California and ordered the utility to do be more vigilant in the upcoming months of hot, windy weather. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope, File)
“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 explained. “September and October are bad months for California fires.”
Why this year could be a reprieve for Southern California
While the lack of moisture and widespread drought has amplified wildfire worries this year due to the dry kindling that can fuel the blazes, it also has meant that regrowing brush has had less support to flourish. In Southern California, where some residents are still picking up the pieces from last year’s tragic season, the drought could actually provide some wildfire relief.
Damage from the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire is seen at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek, Calif., Thursday, April 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)
“Some areas, like Southern California, tend to get more wildfires with brush and grass,” Samuhel said. “Since it was a dry winter there, that means there wasn’t a lot of new grass that grew. So that could reduce the wildfire threat a little bit, at least in that area.”
On top of the lack of new growth, Samuhel said a lot of cool air in the area this summer will also likely help places in Southern California escape a horrible fire season.
However, he added that it takes just one small spark to trigger devastation and disruption for hundreds of thousands even if they aren’t in direct threat from a wildfire. Power utilities, especially last year, conducted a number of public safety shutoffs to reduce the threat of fires igniting when conditions worsen.
“Obviously, it takes one fire in the wrong spot and during a high-wind event, which is hard to predict months ahead of time, and they could still have a devastating fire, even in Southern California,” he said.
Lightning and 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, untimely 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.
FILE – In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, fire burns in the hollow of an old-growth redwood tree in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
“Wind is the fire’s number one 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 can also 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 Santa Ana winds are also notorious for bringing low humidity to the region. As air descends through the mountains to the lower elevations, the winds also dry out the air, making for potentially explosive conditions in which wildfires can easily ignite. Last year, the National Weather Service warned that relative humidity could plummet to as low as 5% during some of the strong Santa Ana wind events — which is low even for the desert.
Even though there was less vegetation growth this year, which will limit the abundance of dry fuels available to feed fires this season, the emergence of strong Santa Ana wind events could still create conditions in which wildfires could easily ignite, or the winds could spread any fires that break out.
Another annual wind event is known as the Sundowner winds. As the name suggests, those gusts kick up around sunset and can wreak havoc throughout the night for firefighters. According to Sosnowski, they tend to blow from the north from the Santa Ynez Mountains to the coast of Santa Barbara County, in the southern half of California. Sundowner winds are most common during the late spring and early summer.
This Monday, April 26, 2021, photo released by USDA Forest Service shows fire progressing in the Lincoln National Forest in N.M. A top-tier management team and additional air tankers and ground crews have been assigned to a wildfire burning in the Sacramento Mountains of south-central New Mexico. The fire near the Three Rivers Campground and west of the Ski Apache ski resort was 5% contained by Tuesday evening, April 27, 2021, after charring 18.75 square miles, according to a statement posted by fire managers. (USDA Forest Service via AP)
As previously mentioned, the unofficial season for wildfire activity stretches from May to October, but the unofficial nature of that range has been proven already in 2021. As of May 1, 2020, some 220,823 acres of wildfire destruction 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 pre-season fire activity has already consumed more than 461,000 acres, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
One of the most notable blazes burning thus far, New Mexico’s Three Rivers Fire, started in the Desert Southwest just as Samuhel had forecast.
The fire was burning in Lincoln National Forest and spread into Mescalero Apache Tribal Land, driven by unfavorably gusty winds and low humidity.
The early-season’s most expansive wildfires have burned in North Dakota, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, where a pair of blazes have combined to consume over 13,000 acres. In South Dakota, another blaze, the Horse Pasture Fire, burned another 5,000 acres in April.
More notable than the acreage was the blaze’s proximity to Mount Rushmore, however. In late March, flames from the Schroeder Fire crept close enough to the historic landmark and nearby towns to force the evacuations of about 500 people. The inferno destroyed multiple buildings and shut down visitation access to the mountainous structure.
Fueled by high winds and dry conditions, the Schroeder Fire and other fires burning in the Black Hills area closed the site for multiple days until firefighters could corral the perimeter.
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