Drought conditions foreshadow heavy fire seasons in N.America & Europe

Avatar for Ed BrotakBy Ed Brotak | May 6, 2022

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 46 seconds.

The wildfire season last year was a stark glimpse of what we can expect in the future. Fire seasons are starting earlier, and fires are larger, more intense, more difficult to control, and more dangerous to fight.

Wildfire seasons seem to be getting longer and longer in the U.S. Here a Croman Sikorsky S-61N battles a blaze. Jeremy Ulloa Photo

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were 58,000 wildfires in the U.S. last year that burned over seven million acres. This was actually below recent averages — and well below the record 10 million acres that burned in 2020.

Canadian Fire Management Agencies reported a total of 5,254 fires with nearly 11 million acres burned in 2021, while an unprecedented heatwave led to wildfire disasters across southern Europe from Turkey to Spain, and even extending into northern Africa and the Middle East.

For the second year in a row, La Nina associated rainfall made for another quiet bushfire season in Australia, but abundant rainfall means significant vegetation growth. When dry conditions return, fuel loads will be great.

Looking to this year, the U.S. has already seen many large fires. As of early May, more than 22,000 wildfires have burned over one million acres — twice the acreage burned by this point last year. Particularly hard hit has been the southwest, with Arizona and New Mexico having a number of major fires.

Since the U.S. Drought Monitor was developed in 2000, the present drought in the western U.S. is the “most extensive and intense” ever measured. In fact, one recent study determined that this drought was the most severe drought in over 1,000 years in the region. To make matters worse, the first three months of 2022 have seen precipitation deficits at or near record levels in parts of the West.

A look at the latest Drought Monitor shows conditions in the West (the Rockies to the Pacific coast) still with 94 percent of the area in some form of drought, with 36 percent of it considered to be “extreme.” Western Texas and Oklahoma (considered part of the South) have deteriorated into “exceptional” drought. Over 84 percent of the High Plains are in drought, with seven percent being extreme. Most of the eastern half of the country remains wet. Two thirds of the land area of the Hawaiian Islands on the leeside are also in drought, while Alaska is almost totally drought free.

The summer temperature outlook for the U.S. is noteworthy. With the exception of the immediate Pacific coast and much of Alaska, the entire country is projected to have above normal temperatures. Particularly likely to see hot weather are the Northeast and the entire western half of the country. Abnormally dry conditions are expected from the Pacific Northwest eastward to the western Great Lakes and southward through the plains states. And it must be noted that predicted “normal” precipitation in much of the southwest U.S. means little, if any, rainfall. Above normal rainfall is expected in southern Arizona, the central Gulf coast, and eastern North Carolina northward into southern New England. Seasonal forecasts for Hawaii are deemed indeterminate for this year.

As a result of these forecasts, drought conditions are expected to continue this summer in much of the West, from the Rockies to the Pacific coast. The exceptions are western Washington and northwest Oregon and the southern half of Arizona, due to an expected active summer monsoon. The western Plains should see an improvement in overall drought conditions, but this may be short lived. Drought is expected to persist in the Hawaiian Islands.

As a result of these weather forecasts, the Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for May shows above normal risk in the High Plains, from Nebraska through west Texas, and encompassing most of New Mexico.

In June, this area expands somewhat westward and northward into the western Dakotas. In addition, an area of above normal risk appears in central Oregon and northern California.

By July, the predicted rainfall decreases fire danger in the Southwest. The high risk area in the Pacific Northwest increases, spreading into central Washington. The high fire potential in the western High Plains continues.

In August, this area is predicted to expand eastward into the mid-Mississippi Valley. Elevated fire danger also expands into more of Washington and Oregon.

For Canada, moderate to extreme drought conditions already exist in southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Continued warm and dry weather is predicted to occur into the summer there. In terms of the Fire Weather Severity Forecast, extreme fire danger is likely to continue in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

By June, this area remains the most at risk, but all of southern Canada is forecast to have an “above average” fire threat.

In July, seasonal dryness in southern British Columbia increases fire danger there, while the rest of southern Canada has an elevated risk.

The “above average” risk area expands in August from southern British Columbia through southern Manitoba where the risk is unusually high.

In September, encroaching cooler air limits fire risk to the north, but southern regions — especially in the Central Plains — have an “above normal” chance of extreme fires.

Finally, in Europe, significant drought conditions extend from southern France eastward to the Black Sea. Somewhat to the north of this, another drought area is noted. The forecast for Europe is also troubling. Above normal temperatures and below normal rainfall are predicted for most of the continent. Conditions should be worse to the south, where temperature departures may be 2 – 4o F (1 – 2o C) above normal and monthly precipitation deficits could be as much as 1 – 1.5 inches (30 – 40 mm). The most extreme conditions are forecast for July, with some minor improvement by August.

Notice a spelling mistake or typo?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Report an error or typo

Have a story idea you would like to suggest?

Click on the button below to send an email to our team and we will get to it as soon as possible.

Suggest a story

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.