The 2015 fire season hasn’t broken any all-time records — yet
High Country News
A couple weeks ago, USA Today reported that U.S. wildfires were approaching “record levels.” The article pointed at the more than 5.5 million acres burned so far this season — second only to the summer in 2011, when just over six million acres had burned by the end of July.
Certainly, the 2015 fire season started off with a bang. As of a week and a half ago, 21 large fires — meaning more than 100 acres — were burning in Western states. But, when it comes to wildfire, the tide turns quickly, and this season may not set any all-time records.
This year’s fire season has been an odd one. The usually fire-prone Southwest has burned less than the Pacific Northwest, California and Alaska. More than 85 percent of acreage burned has been in Alaska. Meanwhile, Colorado, which has broken a number of its own fire records over the past few years, has remained relatively fire-free.
While 2011 had seen a high number of big burns by mid-year, it eventually fell behind 2006, 2007 and 2012. By December 31, 2011, a mere 8.7 million acres had burned — nearly a million acres behind 2006, which saw nearly 10 million scorched acres.
Ultimately, how 2015 stacks up in the grand scheme of things will depend on the fall fire season, says Randy Eardley, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Fall fires are largely dependent on human activity; with natural ignition, like lightning, all but disappearing, people are the primary fire-starters come autumn.
NIFC predicts things will begin to stabilize in many parts of the country, come August. Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, currently experiencing below normal fire risk, will level out.
In Colorado’s Front Range, a wet 2014 coupled with heavy rains this spring kept fire activity at bay. “The longevity of our dryness periods has not been very long this year,” says Tim Mathewson, fire meteorologist for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. “We’ll have three hot and dry days and then we get pulses of moisture.” But, all that precipitation can give people a false sense of security, he says. The issue is that during these wet periods, an abundance of fine fuels, namely grasses, were able to spring up.
And, with the fall come warm, dry periods and cold fronts, which are supportive of fire, especially when coupled with an above-average amount of grasses. A single spark could easily be disastrous.
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