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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.
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.