Wildfires have consumed more than 4.2 million acres of land across the U.S. so far this year, a number more than double the most recent 10-year average, but there's still hope that 2011 won't be a record year — all that winter snow in the Rockies, Sierras and Cascades should keep Western areas green long enough to get through the summer heat.
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That 4.2 million figure — an area about the size of Connecticut — is more than all of last year.
"We've had a lot of ground burn this year — in spite of the fact that we've had fewer fires reported than average," says Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
More than half of the burned acreage has been in the South and Southwest, including Arizona's Wallow fire that has raced through 470,000 acres in two weeks.
New Mexico has seen hundreds of wildfires this year going all the way back to January and including one Monday inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Dozens of visitors were evacuated on Monday and the 300 residents of a nearby community were told to leave Tuesday as the fire grew to 16,000 acres.Story: Lawmakers call for more fire prevention efforts
Texas, for its part, has seen some 2 million acres — and more than 460 homes — go up in flames since November.
In Florida, the Everglades area has seen 115 fires so far this year — three times the norm.
Long-term drought coupled with a La Nina cycle last winter are the key culprits, says Frederick.
La Nina, which influences weather globally, "brought a lot of rain and snow to the Northwest and northern tier of the country but denied the normal moisture to the Southwest and South," he says.
Seasonal rains that tend to start in early July should "put a lid on the larger fires," Frederick says, but the outlook between now and then isn't positive.
"Above normal significant fire potential is expected across much of the western two thirds of New Mexico and the southeastern half of Arizona in June," the fire center said in its most recent monthly report.
At 4.2 million acres, the first half of 2011 is way ahead of the 2.9 million acres for the same period in 2006, which turned out to be the worst year on record at nearly 10 million acres burned.
Frederick calls this year's pace "remarkable" but still doesn't expect 2011 to break the record because of the tremendous snowpack across the West.Story: Ariz. fire now biggest; Carlsbad Caverns fire grows
The one caveat: If grassy areas in Nevada, Utah, southern Idaho and western Colorado see a growth spurt followed by strong heat they could quickly become fuel for fire.
"We are keeping our eye on the grassy fuels across the Great Basin," he says. "Once those grasses dry out, they could fuel large fires later this summer."
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