More than 1.2 million acres in the United States have been burned by wildfires so far this year. That’s about 500,000 acres more than the average for 10 years – and in much of the West, peak fire conditions have not even occurred. Currently, 11 major fires are raging in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and New Mexico. And since much of the country is in deep drought, the rest of spring and early summer will probably look just as fiery, especially in the Great Plains and the Southwest.

This year reflects a wider transition in fire behavior in the United States, as hotter days and more variable rainfall have allowed the West’s relatively concentrated “fire season” to become a year-round disaster and risk. But June, July and August are still particularly vulnerable to fire. On May 1, National Interdepartmental Fire Center (NIFC) released its forecasts for the weather in fires until August.

[Related: Early US wildfires signal more spring infernos to come]

It is important to note that the center can only predict fire potential. “Do you really realize that the potential depends on the actual weather,” said Jim Wallman, a meteorologist at NIFC. Windy days, lightning and rain will shape the actual season. The “bad news,” he says, is that he will be “busy” from Wyoming to California during the peak season.

Late spring

Drought Monitor in the United States.

It’s very, very dry in the United States right now. The mountainous west, from California to the Rockies, is more than two decades old. its most severe drought from the last 1200 years, which killed trees and left the vegetation extremely susceptible to fire. Meanwhile, patches of extreme and extreme drought through Arizona, New Mexico and the southern Great Plains have laid the groundwork for the biggest fires in 2022 to date. One, on the eastern slope of the Rockies, burned more than 160,000 acres and threatened the prairie city of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

The outlook for the rest of May doesn’t look much better. NIFC expects a normal monsoon season in the southwest in late June or early July, which will wet the grass and put an end to the most volatile fires. But until then, storms will continue to move in the region, as throughout the spring, spreading new fires in open pastures from Colorado to Nebraska.

Map of the potential for forest fires in the United States in May in red and green
NIFC projects “above normal” fire potential so that the risk of fire can still be high outside the red areas on the top and bottom of the maps National Interdepartmental Fire Center.

Over the course of the month, the danger will spread to the US-Mexico border. Record monsoons hit last year Southern Arizona and New Mexico. While this may sound like a good thing for fire management, it has led to the explosive growth of fast-drying vegetation, such as invasive grass. As these dry up in the May heat, they will be more likely to carry fast moving fires.

On the other hand, late frosts and rains momentarily reduced the risk of fire in the Northwest Pacific. Although Central Oregon and much of Montana are closed to land, these weather models keep fuel moist enough to stop fires from taking off. Still, as temperatures get hotter over the next few weeks, NIFC believes Central Oregon may be vulnerable to rapidly growing fires caused by wind storms.

the beginning of summer

Map of the potential for forest fires in June in the United States in red
National Interdepartmental Fire Center

By June and early July, the risk of fire will be much more prevalent in the western United States. In Northern California, early spring plants dry out in an inappropriately hot spring. If the fire is lit on a windy day, it will easily jump over manzanites, chamises and other woody shrubs in the hills from San Francisco to Sacramento.

The report also identifies factors that could make the fire season more unpredictable in California. In December, storms in the High Sierra felled trees that will dry up in the summer. This, combined with dead drought-affected crops, can cause large fires, although the extent of this threat is unclear.

Map of the potential for forest fires in the United States in May in red
National Interdepartmental Fire Center

The Great Plains can also be a hot spot this summer. Conditions that led to fires in Nebraska and Texas earlier in the year could extend north to Dakota and east to Iowa and Missouri until July. “It’s not that unusual,” says Wallman. “It simply came to our notice then. There was a lot of grass last year and there wasn’t much snow in the winter, so the grass is still there. “

Late summer

Once we reach mid-July and August, the danger of fire begins to spread in the United States. Although much of the Midwest will remain at high risk, the onset of the monsoon should bring relief to most of the southwestern and southern plains. (There will be some rain in the other plains, but Wallman says a strong monsoon in the southwest generally means less water in the east.)

Map of the potential for forest fires in the United States in August in red
National Interdepartmental Fire Center

The risk of fire is likely to increase in the Northwest Pacific, but the details are unclear. “By the time we get to August, there’s some uncertainty,” Wallman said. In California, forecasters can make forecasts for the fire season quite well based on winter snow. But “as you climb north, much of the fire season is about spring,” Wallman said. So while NIFC is confident from local snow that Central Oregon and Northern California will be at high risk, it needs to monitor rainfall levels in May before forecasting summer conditions in northern Idaho and Montana.

[Related: Can you really use foil to fireproof your house?]

But based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NIFC predicts that the region will see another summer that is hotter than usual. At the same time the high plains in eastern Oregon and Washington – area where entire cities were destroyed from forest fires around Labor Day in 2020 – there will probably be less seasonal rains.

This year the picture is better than in 2020, says Wallman, when the summer monsoons simply did not appear in the southwest. Instead, he believes 2022 looks similar to 2021. However, last year saw three of the largest documented fires in California’s history. Even a year that does not break fire records can still stress firefighters and communities.


The American West is primed for a summer of fire

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