Image: Oregon wildfire
Oregon Department Of Forestry
Smoke marks the spot of a small wildfire that started Sunday near Spray, Ore. Much of the state as well as California and Washington are forecast to see a severe wildfire season.
updated 7/28/2009 12:09:41 PM ET 2009-07-28T16:09:41

Continued drought and the possibility of major lightning storms should make for an above-normal summer wildfire season, especially in northern California, according to a new forecast.

The worst drought conditions were found in California, western Oregon and Washington state and the big variable for wildfire is likely to be lightning, Ron Neilson, an Oregon State University botany professor and U.S. Forest Service bioclimatologist, said in a statement.

“It’s usually lightning storms that trigger multiple fires,” Neilson said. “Our computer models are pretty accurate at determining the vegetation, moisture and climatic conditions that set the stage for fire, but can’t always predict whether or not something will actually light them.”

Those areas, as well as most of Texas and the Southwest are expected to have higher-than-normal levels of fire, compared to a base period of 1971-2000, Neilson and other researchers concluded.

Nationally, 3.7 million acres are expected to burn this summer and, while that's about average, the West is expected to see an unusual concentration of fires.

Neilson said El Nino and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, two climate systems that impact the seas and weather, might have big impacts this summer.

“Lately we’ve had unusually turbulent weather in the U.S. for the summer months,” Neilson said. “The Midwest is getting heavier-than-normal rain and we’ve had some very unusual and powerful storms in the West as well. Everywhere I go people keep saying the weather is just really, really weird.”

The two systems could also create the conditions for turbulent storms that produce a lot of lightning, Neilson said.

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