2009 Fire Season Outlook Identifies Few Areas of Concern

May 18, 2009

Forecasts Normal to Below Normal Potential Across Most of the West


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 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.

“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 wide-spread 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. While the mountainous areas in both Washington and Oregon currently have near to above normal snowpack measurements, some coastal and southeast mountain areas in Oregon and in north/central Washington snow pack and snow water content amounts are running 70 percent to 80 percent of normal. In north/central Washington, low snow accumulations will likely melt early. Thus, significant fire potential is expected to increase to above normal levels in north/central Washington by mid-late June as fuels cure and dry early in the fire season.

Elsewhere in the state, some spikes in large fire activity are expected during the summer fire season, especially during dry lightning events.

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 that moderates conditions there beginning in early July. Above normal significant fire potential currently in place across the southeast half of the area will shift north and west to central and southeast Arizona and the southwest quarter of New Mexico during late May to early June. This will occur as spring winds gradually give way to hotter and drier conditions across much of the area.

At the same time, moisture events are expected to intrude into west Texas and eastern New Mexico, which will begin to moderate fire potential in those areas. Significant fire potential will moderate across the majority of the region by early to mid-July.

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.

For instance, an above normal snow pack should delay snow melt and fire season onset over higher elevation areas across portions of the northern Rocky Mountains, especially in northern Idaho and Montana.

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.

“Active fire years in Nevada typically have well-above normal winter rainfall, abundant grass and an above average snowpack, none of which are present so far this year. Consequently, Nevada is expected to have a below average fire season in terms of total acres burned,” NIFC said.

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.

Canadian drought code values were low across the eastern interior last fall due to wet conditions. Forecasts for May through August call for near to below average temperatures and near average precipitation across portions of western and southern Alaska through the outlook period. In areas of bug-killed timber, especially on the southwestern Kenai Peninsula and portions of the western Cook Inlet, there is an elevated risk of large fires. Historically, fire seasons following La Niña conditions tend to burn less than the average number of acres.

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

The full seasonal assessment can be viewed at: www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/outlooks.htm.

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Insurance Journal West May 18, 2009
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