Winter and spring rain patterns boosted the growth of grasses and low-lying vegetation — setting the stage for a worse than normal fire season in the Southwest, Northern Rockies and Alaska, federal wildfire forecasters say.
“We are very concerned because we’ve had all the grass growth but the forests in the higher elevations of the Northwest and the Northern Rockies have missed out on all their snowpack,” Rick Ochoa, the national fire weather program manager for the National Weather Service, said Wednesday.
“Usually, when that snowpack gradually melts, you are basically watering the trees every day, but we’re missing that this year.”
While the Rocky Mountain region had a dry winter and wet spring, the pattern flip-flopped in the Southwest. A wetter-than-normal winter caused flooding and mudslides in Arizona, New Mexico, southern Nevada and Southern California, followed by a dry spring.
Much of the Southwest’s vegetation has already dried, dramatically boosting fire potential.
The fire season in the Northern Rockies could be marked by a wetter-than-average summer. “Storms usually mean lightning and that’s where we get the ignition for most of our fires in this region,” said Boise National Forest Fire and Aviation Officer Guy Pence.
Forecasters at the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center don’t expect a repeat of last year’s record-setting fire season in Alaska, when nearly 6.4 million acres were scorched. Ochoa said they anticipate higher-than-normal fire activity in the western Kenai Peninsula, however, where stands of spruce trees have been killed by insects.
Excluding Alaska, last year was a relatively mild fire season in the West, burning 1.4 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.