The West and Southeast face an increased wildfire risk this year because of ongoing drought and an expected hotter than average summer, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday.
The center identified broad swaths of those regions — including all of Florida — and central Alaska as having increased chances of catching fire.
“One of the things that strikes me is the breadth of the fire season, stretching from Florida and Georgia all the way up to Alaska,” said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager at the center.
The National Wildland Fire Outlook report predicts the wildfire danger for May through August. It is based on past and expected weather patterns combined with the predicted amount and dryness of fire fuels and their potential to ignite.
This year’s map looks similar to last year, said Tom Wordell, wildland fire analyst at the center.
In 2006, a record 9.8 million acres burned, 2,300 buildings were destroyed, fire suppression costs totaled $1.4 billion, and 24 wildland firefighters died.
“We’re a bit nervous,” Wordell said. But he said there were too many variables to say 2007 will be a repeat of 2006.
In the Southeast, dry conditions in southern Florida have expanded northward to include the rest of the state and southern portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The fire season is already on in Georgia, where a wildfire has burned 125 square miles of forest and swampland in the southeast part of the state in the last two weeks.
In the West, the report predicts a low snowpack will melt away quickly, causing forests at higher elevations to dry out.
Such conditions may happen in forests in southwest Montana, central Idaho, California’s Sierra — where the snowpack is near its lowest level in almost two decades — the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon and southwestern Washington, and the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina.
Nevada, Utah, Idaho at risk
Much of Nevada, western Utah and southern Idaho could be in for an early and prolonged grassland fire season because of an abundance of fuel after two wet winters followed by a dry winter.
“Once they cure, they’re very fire prone,” Wordell said of the grasslands.
Other areas with an increased fire risk include:
- The southern two-thirds of Arizona, partly because of buffelgrass that grows in what used to be sparsely vegetated areas.
- The southern part of New Mexico and western Texas because of abundant plant growth that is expected to dry out by mid-May.
- The lower third of California, which has received less than half of normal precipitation since October, leaving dried-out vegetation plus areas of freeze-killed vegetation that could catch fire.
- Central and southwest Alaska, where low snowpack and a warm summer caused the center to declare above-normal fire potential.
The only areas with below-normal danger include small portions of northeast New Mexico and southeast Colorado, and portions of the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.
“Everybody is getting trained up so that we’re ready for when it starts,” said Deb Yoder, a smoke jumper with the Bureau of Land Management based in Boise, and one of the nation’s 15,000 wildland firefighters. “I’ll just make sure I’m ready for whatever happens.”