Explosive Wildfire Season Predicted for U.S. West, South

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
April 28, 2006
Wildfires have been raging intermittently since the beginning of the
year in parts of the western United States, where the term "fire season"
has lost all meaning.

In what is already by far the worst year for wildfires in Texas history, a million acres (405,000 hectares) burned in the Texas panhandle during one week in March, and 19 lives have been lost since January 1.

"We have never seen a year like this," said Marilyn Grossman, spokesperson for the Texas Forest Service.

"It has people really shaken, and unfortunately we are not out of the woods yet."

In terms of fire damage, 2006 already looks like a year for the record books. And official preparations for fire season—which usually begins around now in the Southwest—have been in effect in many places since winter.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 33,000 wildfires have been reported across the U.S., burning nearly 2.2 million acres (890,000 hectares), according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

That is far higher than the five-year average of 27,150 fires burning 583,000 acres (236,000 hectares) by this time of year.

"We are off to a really big start," said NIFC spokesperson Rose Davis.

The combined forces of persistent drought and high heat are teaming up to create what could be one of the worst fire seasons on record.

NIFC has listed much of the country at above-average risk for wildfires, with the greatest danger zones in the West and South, stretching from Alaska to Florida.

Davis pointed out that while Texas and Oklahoma have so far experienced the most widespread damage, the entire South is a potential tinderbox.

And more than any other place, the Southwest is ripe for an extremely large and potentially destructive fire, she said.

Fire Danger

Arizona and New Mexico are typically on the dry side, but this year they are downright parched.

"We went at one point this winter for 132 days without precipitation," said Ken Palmrose, a spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service in Phoenix, Arizona.

In a normal year, high mountains in Arizona and New Mexico are buried in snow in spring, protecting forests there from fire danger.

This year, however, Arizona's snowpack has been the lowest since the 1930s. New Mexico's winter was the second driest since 1895, and its snowpack has been at its lowest levels in 25 years.

Even at high elevations, drought-weakened trees and dried-out grasses and scrub have become potential fuel for wildfires.

Both states had wet winters two years ago, which stoked the growth of grasses across all elevations. But those grasses are now dry and ready to burn.

Because of that, Palmrose said there is not a single part of his state that is not on high fire alert.

Fire restrictions in both states went into effect in February, the earliest ever. NIFC, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts, has been moving its resources, including firefighters from other states, into Arizona and New Mexico in recent weeks.

(See an interview with a veteran wildfire fighter.)

La Niña to Blame

The weather pattern called La Niña—which refers to cooling sea temperatures in the eastern equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean—is partly responsible for the hot, dry winter that created the current situation.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, La Niña conditions typically create drought in the South and Southwest in winter that can persist through summer. It is also associated with above-average precipitation in the Northwest during winter months.

Douglas LeComte, a drought specialist at NOAA, noted that the Southwest is in worse condition than the South, because the Southwest has been drier for a longer period.

"Parts of the West have been in drought since 1999, and drought in the Southeast is a shorter term problem," he said.

NIFC's Davis added that La Niña often brings summer monsoon rains to the Southwest earlier than usual, which may be a blessing.

Fingers Crossed

For now fire officials have little choice but to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Just because the conditions are right for a major wildfire, experts point out, doesn't mean it will happen this year.

"Last year, we were worried about big fires in the Pacific Northwest, and they kept getting bursts of rain all spring," Davis said.

Both Arizona and New Mexico have had early fires, but they have not been of the size that officials believed were possible this year under extreme drought conditions.

"We could get lucky and have systems like the one that is going to move in this weekend," said National Park Service meteorologist Rich Naden, referring to thunderstorms that are predicted to move into New Mexico over the next few days.

"We could continue to have events that knock us back down. But really it's just a matter of time here."

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