After a winter of record-low precipitation and record-high temperatures, I almost can’t bear to look at the wildfire forecast for summer. But here it is. And boy, is it ugly.
It’s not much of a surprise, really, with “exceptional drought” conditions already blanketing most places in the West. But this is pretty darn awful. Released yesterday by the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services, the maps show “above normal” wildland fire potential (marked in red) consuming much of California, Oregon, and Washington—in the case of Oregon, the entire state is at high risk. What you’ll also notice is the red and yellow striped mass creeping into the Northern Plains towards the end of the summer, which signifies “increasing to above normal.” More bad news: They’re not shown in the image above, but Hawaii and Alaska also have high fire risks after their own respective dry winters.
Fire is, of course, a completely natural and necessary process to keep forests healthy. But the problem here is the retreating (or in some instances, nonexistent) snowpack, which affects the quality of fuel—dead and fallen timber. Usually, fuel stays saturated with moisture well into summer, keeping fire risk low. But with no snow cover and and extra warm temperatures, the fuel will “cure” earlier in the year. This creates a longer window when forests will be susceptible to human-started fires.
To blame (for almost everything): Persisting El Niño conditions that are keeping the West Coast hot and dry. According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) there’s a 70 percent chance that El Niño conditions will continue through the summer and a 60 percent chance they’ll extend through fall. Desert and mountain regions will start to see relief towards the end of the summer in the form of “monsoonal moisture,” heavy afternoon thunderstorms that creep up from the Mexican Plateau. But it’s also worth noting that in Southern California, some of our hottest temperatures are in September and October, extending the fire season well into the fall. So the next forecast, released in June, could be worse.