It’s only May, but already the approaching summer wildfire season across much of the West is looking ominous. According to national firefighting officials, the fire danger is predicted to be above normal across most of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Idaho, as well as across portions of Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Washington.
With that potential for wildfire already on the calendar, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on Monday to discuss the federal government’s approach to the fire season.
“The U.S. Forest Service, federal fire managers, and crews will continue to work closely with states and communities to protect residents, property, and our natural resources during what could be a challenging wildfire season,” said Secretary Vilsack. “We are working together to preposition our firefighting teams and equipment to make the most effective use of available resources during this time of constrained budgets.”
Secretary Jewell, who is been on the job for just a month, said the upcoming fire season will pose a significant challenge when it comes to stakeholder cooperation.
“One of our greatest strengths in wildfire management is that the federal, tribal, state, and local government agencies recognize that the challenge is too great for any one organization to tackle on its own,” she said. “As regions across the country face serious risks of wildfires this season, the work ongoing at the National Interagency Fire Center is important to ensure that we're doing everything we can to protect lives, communities, and our natural resources. The public also has an important role to play, and I encourage homeowners and communities to take proactive steps when it comes to preparedness, prevention, and safety.”
Last year, more than 9 million acres of private, state, and federal lands and more than 4,400 structures were burned by wildfires. That was the third highest number of acres burned since at least 1960, according to the Interior Department.
Heading into this wildfire season, the federal government counts more than 13,000 firefighters, as well as more than 1,600 fire engines, as many as 26 multi-engine air tankers and two "water scooper" aircraft, along with 27 single-engine air tankers and hundreds of helicopters for use in battling fires.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, some late-season winter storms did bring needed snowpack to the northern and central Rockies, the Plains states, the upper Midwest and Great Lakes, and parts of New England. However, dry and warm conditions reduced the snowpack from Oregon into the Great Basin and across the southern Rockies. California and the high Sierra remained very dry, exacerbating drought conditions there.
“Drought continued at extreme to exceptional levels over much of the Plains and parts of the Southwest, while severe drought conditions increased through much of the West,” said the center.
Exacerbating those dry conditions could be current climate predictions that show higher probabilities of warmer than normal conditions for much of the West, the center added. Precipitation in the coming months is expected to be below median levels over the Northwest and Northern Rockies, it said.
If that isn’t bad enough, the center reports that in nearly all areas west of the Rocky Mountains high fuel levels “raise the probability for severe early-season fire activity that will likely continue into summer.”
“Across the western U.S., fire season is likely to occur somewhat earlier than normal in most areas due to the effect severe drought has had on fuel dryness early this season," the center said. “Worsening conditions in California could accelerate the onset of fire season and the potential for significant fires in May, nearly a month ahead of schedule."
While no wildfires currently are reported in the National Park System, last year's fire season actually stretched into this year, as the Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park continued to smolder even under snow.