National wildfire experts on Friday predicted a busy and costly fire season this summer in parched states like Texas and Colorado, where hundreds of square miles have been charred in a region struggling with the worst drought conditions in decade.
As if on cue, a wildfire in Texas jumped containment lines Friday, triggering evacuations of two neighborhoods outside the town of Junction.
But the annual wildfire report issued by the National Interagency Fire Center on Friday forecasts lower fire potential for other regions of the West and Midwest that are benefiting from average or above-average snow and rain during the winter.
The report, compiled by wildfire managers and weather and climate specialists, forecasts a normal wildfire season for California, and a low-risk, late-starting wildfire season for states in the Pacific Northwest, northern Rocky Mountains and the Dakotas.
The report blames an intensified La Nina pattern for adding to the drought conditions that have dried out Texas, much of New Mexico and eastern Colorado and made portions of western Kansas, Oklahoma and southern Arizona high-risk candidates for a hectic, damaging and early-starting wildfire season. La Nina's effects on climate this year, cited in the report as the strongest since the mid-1970s, have also put portions of Hawaii and a swath in central Alaska in the higher risk category for early season fires.
So far this year, fires have charred more than 2 million acres in Texas, forced thousands to evacuate homes along Colorado's Front Range and scorched nearly 400 square miles in New Mexico, costing state and federal governments millions of dollars in a year of tight budgets.
"We believe we have resources for this year," said U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who toured the agency in Boise on Friday. "But it is one of those issues which ... we are struggling with because it is a very tough deficit budget time in our country."
The Obama administration sought about $3.6 billion in fiscal 2011 to fight fires and engage in preventative efforts like three thinning, according to agency records. But some budget experts believe that figure could be cut in in fiscal 2012.
The outlook, however, is much brighter for many other states in the nation's western half.
Average or above-average snowpack and ample rain and cool spring temperatures have reduced the risk or delayed the onset of the wildfire season from Washington and Idaho to North Dakota according to the report. La Nina summers also tend to decrease lighting storms blamed for triggering fires in forests and across rangelands, the report states.
For California, a state that has struggled with drought and significant wildfire damage, a summer with less risk for significant fire activity is projected. While vegetation and grass fuels across the state are still dealing with the effects of drought, even those in southern California are holding enough moisture to reduce the chances of significant fires flaring up until later in the season, according to the report.
Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, northern Colorado and most of Nebraska are projected for normal or slightly above-normal potential for significant fires.
The report also forecasts the risk will decrease in the dry, wildfire hotspots in southeastern Colorado and Kansas during the next two months as more rain and higher humidity moves into the region.
Despite the positive outlook for much of the West and high levels of confidence in the forecasts, experts caution that weather and a string of hot, dry and windy weeks can quickly raise risk.
"The last thing we want the public to do is get lulled into that false sense of security that everything is going to be fine because we have a lot of snow in the mountains and it's melting very slowly," NIFC spokesman Don Smurthwaite said. "People and firefighters still need to be vigilant."