Despite an unusually slow start to the wildfire season across much of the country, all signs are pointing to a "dangerous," "difficult," and "challenging" year, federal officials warn, with the worst conditions expected in the parched western USA.
So far this year nationally, more than 14,000 fires have charred roughly 175,000 acres, the lowest numbers to this date in the past 10 years, according to wildland fire analyst Jeremy Sullens of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. On average, he said, based on data for the past 10 years, about 25,000 fires have burned about 823,000 acres by this time of the year.
The reason for the low numbers is an unusually cool weather pattern that's helped suppress fire activity in the southeastern parts of the nation, which is where fires tend to form in the first few months of the season.
However, "just because we started off below average in the Southeast has no bearing on the fire season in the West," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who announced the seasonal forecast along with other federal officials at a press conference in Boise on Monday.
According to Monday's forecast, significant fire potential is predicted to be above normal in much of the West, including almost all of Arizona, New Mexico, California and Oregon, and portions of Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah and Washington.
"We've had above average temperatures and below-average precipitation in the West, a combination that doesn't bode well for a good season," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack,
Jewell said that the 12 driest years on record in the nation have occurred in the past 15 years, which she said is a sign of a changing climate.
And while much of the nation has had a calm season so far, the one exception has been California, which has seen a significant increase in fire activity, both compared to last year and to the average amount burned to this time of year, said information officer Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire. More than 1,200 fires have burned 40,000 acres, he said, far above the average to date of 600 fires and 1,200 acres.
"It's very unusual to have this much fire activity this early in the year," Berlant said. "Dozens of wildfires burning in May is unheard of. These are conditions we should be seeing in July and August."
Another concern in California, in addition to the dry weather conditions, is a rebound in the housing market, said Thomas Jeffery, senior hazard scientist with CoreLogic, a research and consulting firm in Irvine, Calif. He said that new homes, built on the "urban fringe" near wildland areas in California, are at "highest risk" for damage or destruction due to wildfires.
On average, according to program manager Molly Mowery of the National Fire Protection Association, wildfires destroy about 1,200 homes each year in the USA.
Mowery said that keys to keeping your home safe from fires include cleaning out gutters and downspouts of debris and leaves; keeping the surface and area beneath decks and porches free of debris and leaves, and maintaining a 3-to-5-foot space around your house and all attachments that are "fuel free" -- no flammable mulch, woodpiles or plants that can allow fire to touch the house.
For more information about how to protect your home from wildfires, go to firewise.org.
Doyle Rice, USA TODAY