Wildfire risk increasing in spring in western U.S. due to drought

WEATHER NEWS: Wildfire risk increasing in spring in western U.S. due to drought

Large swaths of the western and central United States are expected to see heightened wildfire risk this spring and summer because of ongoing severe drought and warmer- and drier-than-normal weather in the coming months. Fire danger is already high in some regions as active weather patterns funnel dry winds over drought-stricken landscapes.

That risk is on display this week in the Plains states, where fierce winds are targeting parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska.

Tornado threat in Midwest Tuesday; blizzard and fire concerns in Plains

A significant wildfire event is possible there on Tuesday, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

“Ongoing extreme drought and exceptionally dry fuels will support Extremely Critical fire weather and the potential for a dangerous fire weather outbreak,” they wrote in a forecast discussion on Monday.

The region has seen multiple rounds of fire weather in recent weeks, related to storm systems that have spawned severe thunderstorms and tornadoes further east. The winds are blowing behind the dry line — a boundary that separates moist and dry air — of these weather patterns.

Much of western Texas, as well as the Oklahoma panhandle, is in extreme to exceptional drought — the two most severe categories of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Great Plains could see its most significant drought in a decade

Brad Smith, a wildland fire analyst with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said that the seeds for this spring’s fire risk were actually planted last summer, when abundant rains grew a thick grass crop in the south and central Plains.

“In mid-August 2021, the rains quit, and they quit with an exclamation point,” he said. Drought has deepened and expanded since then, and vegetation is now parched.

“When you have a lot of grass, you have this continuous fuel bed — fires don’t have any trouble spreading horizontally,” he said. Such fires can move so quickly during high winds that they outpace the efforts of firefighters. In March, a fast-moving fire destroyed homes in rural areas near Fort Worth.

“You have really laid the foundation for extreme fires,” he said, noting that fire danger measurements were currently in rare territory. “All you need is that weather trigger.” He compared the strong winds expected this week to a Santa Ana wind event in Southern California — capable of fueling a serious wildfire outbreak.

Nick Nauslar, a fire meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center, said that it has been a dry winter overall for much of the High Plains.

“Essentially, when we get to this time of year and there hasn’t been recent snow, it’s really easy for grass to ignite and spread fire quickly,” he said.

That includes in parts of Colorado, where wildfires forced evacuations near Colorado Springs over the weekend, and Red Flag Warnings are in effect for the eastern part of the state on Tuesday. Elevated fire potential is predicted for Colorado into July.

Fire activity is also increasing in the Southwestern states, which typically see dry and windy weather in April and May.

“Near record-to-record amounts of fine fuels in southeast Arizona across sections of southern New Mexico into the eastern plains of New Mexico could lead to large upticks in wind driven fire activity this spring,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center’s outlook released April 1.

In some good news, forecasters are optimistic that a robust monsoon will arrive this summer, bringing potentially heavy rain to the Southwestern U.S. and ending the fire season there in July. But lightning during monsoon thunderstorms could ignite new wildfires in areas that see less rain. Such ignitions are most common along the northern and western fringes of the monsoon, where storms tend to be drier, including in Northern California.

On the West Coast, the risk for larger fires is forecast to increase in April in central Oregon and in May in Northern California.

California is bracing for another intense fire season following its driest January through March on record, along with well above normal temperatures during that period.

Snowpack is now down to just 22 percent of average for the date following a brief but intense heat wave last week.

California snowpack vastly depleted after record dry start to year

On Friday, the National Weather Service in Sacramento issued its earliest Red Flag Warning on record, with vegetation flammability spiking to levels usually seen in July.

However, wet weather this week could halt the drying process and possibly delay the expected increase in fire activity. But it’s unlikely that spring rains can make up for what was lost during the heart of the wet season, and the state is poised to enter summer months unusually fire-prone and drought-stressed.

“We typically see the western fire season progress from south to north and from east to west,” Nauslar said. “This year it looks like it is going to be earlier and more active than normal.”

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