Predictions for the 2009 Wildfire Season

Firefighter and brush fire.

Photo by Jim Burnett.

What might 2009 hold for wildfires in parks and other areas? Experts at the National Interagency Fire Center have issued a fire season outlook for the next several months that provides an educated guess, and several parks are located in predicted hotspots.

It's important to note that these are predictions, and cover large geographical areas, so localized conditions could change the equation for specific parks, for better or worse. While the outlook does provide a tool to help managers at the national, regional and local levels plan for the coming summer, this information certainly should not be used as a basis for your vacation plans!

Here's a summary of the prediction, along with examples of parks in each area mentioned:

Northern California, where nearly a million acres burned last summer, is poised to possibly be another hotspot for wildfire activity in 2009, according to the fire season outlook released on Friday by the Predictive Services Group at the National Interagency Fire Center. The seasonal outlook considers the condition of wildland fuels, weather forecasts, and climate and drought data.

What about Southern California, where fires in the past few days have made headlines? It's important to keep in mind that fire is an inescapable part of life in that area, which isn't highlighted in this report only because its coming wildfire season isn't expected to be significantly worse than normal.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California was among the locations in that area that experienced significant fire activity last summer.

“Whether or not we see that potential develop into another severe fire season in California depends on ignitions,” said Rick Ochoa, fire weather program manager at NIFC. “Last year we had widespread lightning storms move through that area and ignite multiple fires.”

In addition to California, north-central Washington is expected to see above normal potential for wildfire activity, based on persistent drought conditions. The Southwest, from Texas to Arizona, also is expected to see above normal fire potential until what is expected to be a robust monsoon season moderates conditions there beginning in early July.

Parks in that area include Big Bend, Carlsbad Caverns and Saquaro.

Elsewhere around the West, however, winter snowpacks and cooler early spring temperatures are expected to moderate conditions and keep the fire potential in the normal range for most other states.

It's interesting to note that a lack of moisture can sometimes be a good thing in terms of the risk of wildfire, since dry conditions can limit the growth of grasses and other "fine fuels" that increase the threat of fires. The report notes,

Although drought conditions are expected to persist in Nevada, the lack of moisture and subsequent lack of fine fuels are expected to result in a below normal fire potential.

In Alaska, ample moisture over the winter, combined with a forecast for normal to below normal temperatures results in below normal potential for fire activity there as well.

In the Southeast, all of Florida except for the western panhandle is predicted to have above normal potential for significant fires through August. Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve are included in that assessment, and Big Cypress has already experienced a wildfire that resulted in the closure of a major interstate highway for several days.

“Overall, the areas with the greatest fire potential this summer are Arizona, New Mexico, California and north-central Washington,” Ochoa said
.

According to preliminary data released by the National Interagency Fire Center, 2008 ranked near average in terms of the number of fires and above average for the number of acres burned.

Comments

We've had a really wet spring in Greater Yellowstone, just as we had last spring (in a fire season that was mostly calm, except in the Shoshone area, where a fire was badly needed). However, last summer, we had a fairly wet summer as well. There's a lot of green everywhere; it will be interesting to see if that serves as the fuel for a big fire season here. But, that's no doubt why we are in the normal range.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

The spring of '88 was quite wet, and then around June 1 somebody turned off the spigot. The rest, as they say, is history.