How Will Wildfires Impact The National Park Landscape This Summer?

Making a prediction of this year's wildfire danger across the national parks is little more than guesswork at this point. Top photo of 2008 fire in Wind Cave National Park, taken by Noah Daniels. Bottom graph USFS.

Winter has been pretty fluky across the United States, with heavy snows taking aim at the Mid-Atlantic and Sierra states, cold weather diving deeply into the Southeast, torrential rains hitting the Northeast, and quick warming baking the Midwest. With such a mix, what might we expect from the coming wildfire season across the National Park System?

While the moist weather in the East allowed for Mammoth Cave National Park firefighters to schedule prescribed burns covering nearly 5,000 acres in late March and early April, the so-so snowfall in the Rockies would seem to indicate an active burning season in Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier national parks this coming summer.

But so far in 2010, wildfires have not been a big issue. Indeed, the 140,617 acres that had burned between January 1 and March 26 paled to the 530,296 acres that burned during the same period in 2009, and were far below the seven-year average of 418,512 acres that usually burned during those three months.

So what should be expect? From their vantage point, forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, see elevated fire potential in Alaska and parts of California by May and across parts of Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Oregon by July. In a bulletin issued April 1, the center’s Predictive Services said March was warmer than normal in the northern United States, especially in the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, and colder than normal over the southern half of the country.

Lack of snowpack, combined with continued dry conditions into spring, will result in heightened chances of significant fires in parts of the West, the bulletin said. Western snowpacks are below normal in the north and above normal in the southwest and southern Great Basin. Continued warm and dry weather in Alaska, which left only light snowpack in the interior, will likely lead to elevated fire activity there, beginning in late spring, it added.

Fire risk is expected to remain low this month across the South, parts of the Southwest and southern Colorado, with heavy snowpack and continued storms through spring keeping the incidence of significant fires below normal into early summer. Fuel moistures are generally above normal from the Southwest to the Eastern Seaboard. In the northern Rockies, temperatures and rains in May and June will dictate the severity of the fire season across Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. An abnormally dry fall, very low snowpack, and abundant fuel may push areas west of the Continental Divide into above-average risk, according to the fire forecasters.

But, as this waning winter has shown, predictions can be hard to make.