West Coast in Store for Dire Wildfire Season

Posted: May 9, 2022 10:13 am

While it is only May, the wildfire season is already firing up in some parts of the West. The amount of acreage burned so far this year is above normal heading into the dry and hot summer season, signaling that it could be a rough few months ahead. Here is what you need to know about what the experts are predicting about this year’s U.S. wildfire season.

2022 Off to a Hot Start

2022 is off to a hot start, quite literally. As of May 3, wildfires have already scorched over 1.1 million acres throughout the country. This figure equates to over twice the number of acres that had burned by that date in 2021. Unlike the Atlantic hurricane season, there are no official dates that define the official season for wildfires. However, meteorologists typically consider the season to run from May through October.

As it stands now, it looks like 2022 will be an above-normal wildfire season. A number of factors are influencing this prediction, most notably the current drought. Unfortunately, wildfire season seems to get worse and worse each year with no end in sight.

Exceptional Drought Conditions to Fuel Wildfire Season

It is no wonder that experts are warning of another dire wildfire season ahead. A recent study released this year demonstrated that the current drought throughout the Southeast is the worst that this corner of the U.S. has experienced in 1,200 years.

Research has also shown that the mean water-year precipitation across this region between the years 2000 and 2021 was 8.3% under the average between the years 1950 and 1999. Pair this lack of precipitation with higher than normal temperatures and it is easy to see why the area is under such a severe drought.

Precipitation has continued to fall below normal levels since the 2021 monsoon season wrapped up. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, approximately 91% of the West was under the umbrella of at least a moderate drought with 79% of this area experiencing at least severe drought conditions. What is more alarming is that almost 37% of the West is under the designation of an extreme or exceptional drought, the highest categories in the system.

The parts of the West that are not under a drought designation include sections of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest and the corner of northern Idaho stretching into northwestern Montana.

Dry Winter Leads to Higher Risk of Fires in the Summer

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It was a winter of little precipitation throughout much of the West, serving to exacerbate what is likely to be a dismal fire season. The spring was not much better when it came to total precipitation amounts. This lack of moisture has created vegetation that is drier than usual leading up to the summer season.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, southern and eastern Oregon was under its driest three-month period on record between January and March. This record dryness stretched into parts of southern Idaho. The only parts of Oregon that were not below average when it came to precipitation was the northwestern and northeastern portions of Oregon.

The situation was not more promising in California. The Golden State saw its driest January in eight years as well as the second-driest driest first month of the year on record. Although the state saw a wet December, these gains were quickly erased once the calendar flipped to 2022.

What About the Rest of the Nation?

The outlook is better in the northern Plains thanks to a historic April snowstorm that helped to saturate the grounds just in time for fire season to start. This region is also forecast to see more precipitation and below normal temperatures this spring, helping to mitigate the odds of early fire development. However, forecasters warn that the onset of warmer and drier conditions by June may raise the risk of fires heading into July and August.

Unfortunately, the central and southern Plains are already under the gun for wildfire development at the hands of below-average levels of moisture heading into the spring. A number of high wind events over the last several weeks have exacerbated this situation. Some areas of western Texas and Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico were under fire weather watches and warnings to close the month of April because of these winds.

Dry conditions throughout the Southwest have also led to an early onset of wildfire season in this part of the U.S. Numerous fires have burned through thousands of acres in Arizona and New Mexico with the conditions expected to hang on until the monsoon season starts during the middle of the summer.

Monsoon Season Likely to Deliver Brief Respite in the Southwest

The good news for the Southwest is that this year’s monsoon season is predicted to bring about a bit of relief to this parched region. A La Niña weather pattern will hopefully deliver a higher than usual amount of moisture to the area starting in late July, helping to decrease the threat of wildfires.

Unfortunately, the monsoon season also brings the risk of lightning strikes that can ignite fires if the ground is too dry. This often mitigates the benefits of the added precipitation. For example, half of the top 20 largest largest fires in California have been blamed on lightning strikes.

Forecasters are already warning that the threat of fires will increase in Northern California in July specifically because of thunderstorms in the area. This threat will likely spread to Oregon, another part of the country known for its dry lighting storms that lead to wildfires.

Impacts of Santa Ana Winds

Lastly, you cannot discount the impacts of the Santa Ana winds when predicting the severity of a fire season. These winds typically are at their peak between October and February in Southern California. The predicted La Niña weather pattern may kick up these winds with greater ferocity while the speed of the upper-level jet stream could carry the smoke as far as the Northeast.

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