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Western states brace for 'very active wildfire season' following warm, dry winter

Drought conditions are contributing to the danger, fire and weather officials say.
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The western half of the country is bracing for a hot, dry and potentially dangerous wildfire season that appears to be already underway in several states.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings on Friday for much of the Great Plains, including North Dakota, where a large wildfire Thursday threatened homes and forced people to evacuate.

A red flag warning means critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now or will shortly. “A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures can contribute to extreme fire behavior,” the National Weather Service said on its website.

All 11 western states have areas currently experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions, including North and South Dakota, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"The Southwest U.S., which is already experiencing widespread severe to exceptional drought, will remain the hardest hit region in the U.S., and water supply will continue to be a concern this spring in these drought-affected areas," Mary Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service, said in a statement.

The ongoing hot, dry weather is adding to concern that this year’s fire season could be similar or worse to previous seasons.

"We are preparing for the fire year," said Stanton Florea, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

As a result of the increasingly dry vegetation, the National Interagency Fire Center recorded an increase in fire activity across the United States in March, especially in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions. Above-normal fire activity is expected to continue across the northern Plains through April and into early May.

“Things can change but we do expect the potential for another very active wildfire season in the West,” Florea said. “At this point, it’s those drought conditions and dry vegetation that are driving that.”

As of Friday, nearly 1,800 firefighters had already mobilized to battle at least 19 different blazes in the Upper Plains, Rockies, Great Lakes and Southwest regions, Florea added. This does not include firefighters on prescribed, or controlled, burns.

“That is a pretty substantial number for this time of year,” he said.

The national preparedness level, which is dictated by fuel and weather conditions, jumped from 1 to 2 this week, allowing fire agencies to free up more resources and prepare for increased fire activity. Last year's preparedness level didn't increase until June, Florea said.

Across the country, record-breaking wildfires are becoming increasingly common as temperatures spike and droughts worsen, leaving brush dry, overgrown and flammable.

On Thursday, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide fire emergency because of drought conditions that fueled a large wildfire near the tourist town of Medora, where at least 100 residents were forced to evacuate.

There were no reports of injuries or damaged structures in the community, near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Burgum said during a news briefing on Friday, but critical fire conditions are expected to continue through much of the day, according to the North Dakota Forest Service. Red flag warnings were also issued throughout the week for much of the state.

North Dakota has already seen a growing number of wildfires combined with extreme drought conditions, The Associated Press reported. The North Dakota Forest Service has tracked more than 140 wildfires that have burned over 46 square miles.

In neighboring South Dakota, a wildfire threatened communities in Pennington County and forced residents in more than 400 homes to evacuate earlier in the week.

The increased fire threat comes after a historic wildfire season in 2020 that scorched millions of acres in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and beyond. In the past decade, California has seen eight of the 10 largest fires in the state’s history, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, devastating communities and drawing tens of millions of dollars from the state’s budget.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized more than $80 million in emergency funds to hire an additional 1,400 firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, to bolster fuels management and wildfire response efforts. Newsom’s 2021 budget proposed $1 billion to support wildfire and forest management, according to the governor's office.

“Fire season can be at any time,” said Carrie Bilbao, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management who also works with the National Interagency Fire Center. “We just don't really have those wet seasons consistently anymore.”

One piece of good news is that Alaska, usually among the first states to see wildfires each year, is not experiencing an uptick in 2021, Bilbao said.

“Alaska usually burns first and then the Southwest, eastern areas in Texas and Florida,” she said, adding that fire experts are “not panicking yet.”

“It’s just one of those things where you never know,” she said. “Especially with the dry fuels and winds, of course you’re going to have increased fire danger. You just plan for the worst.”