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Could we have a rough wildfire season?

| May 18, 2020 1:11 AM

After a drier-than-normal April in the northwestern portion of the country, precipitation totals have been increasing. Between now and early June, Cliff and I believe that rainfall totals in Coeur d’Alene and the rest of the Inland Empire will be near- to above-normal levels.

Despite the recent weather pattern change that has seen rainfall down into Northern California earlier this month, the U.S. Drought Monitor is reporting abnormally dry to pockets of extreme drought conditions over much of the West. The latest chart shows severe to extreme drought in northwestern California and much of the western half of Oregon. The Portland region is currently reporting abnormally dry conditions.

To the north, central Washington, according to the chart, has extreme drought. But, the Spokane to Coeur d’Alene area is abnormally dry. Many of the trees in the region have been stressed from the drier-than-normal weather last month, so the recent rainfall has been helpful.

With moisture totals doing a little better across the Inland Northwest, we’re now starting to see predictions for the upcoming fire season. So far, the 2020 fire season has been pretty good for much of the western U.S. Most of the wildfires have been down in Florida where 10 blazes were reported as of late last week. California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho are not seeing any major wildfires, which is good news.

From Jan. 1 through the middle of May, there has been slightly less than 15,000 fires across the U.S. that has burned about 325,000 acres. In the disastrous wildfire year of 2017 during the same time period, there were already over 2.1 million acres that burned. The average number of acres that goes up in smoke at this time of year in the U.S. is slightly less than 1 million, so we’re currently below average levels.

On May 1, the National Interagency Fire Center updated their three-month outlook for the chances of wildfires across the country. Their report states that snowpack melting rates “accelerated during late April across the Inland West, Oregon, Central Washington and the Kenai Peninsula.” However, snowpacks in the mountain regions near the Canadian border and across the interior of Alaska are currently above normal.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center Forecast, much of Idaho should have a relatively “normal” fire season through June. However, the chances for wildfires are higher than average in June across all of the lower elevations in Arizona, southeastern Nevada, southern Utah and southwestern Colorado. Most of Northern California and extreme southwestern Oregon are also forecast to have above-normal chances for wildfires.

In July, the area of above-normal activity expands as there is the potential for a tough fire season across much of central and eastern Washington as well as northern Idaho and northwestern Montana. By August, the problem areas increase into central and southwestern Idaho, northwestern Nevada and much of Oregon. The Portland and Seattle regions are forecast to have a near-normal wildfire season.

As we get toward the middle of June, conditions are forecast to turn drier than normal across the Inland Northwest. We also think that some storms during the summer months, some storms will have the potential to produce “dry lightning,” especially across eastern Washington.

With snowfalls in the western mountains melting ahead of schedule, officials are concerned that the western U.S. will see an increase in wildfire activity that will lead to another rough season. California has already had two back-to-back massive fire seasons in 2017 and 2018. Fortunately, conditions were calmer in 2019 when compared to the previous two seasons. Last year, there were a total of nearly 260,000 acres that burned that resulted in $163 million in damage in California. In Idaho, the 2019 season was considered to be “mild.”

The two summer seasons of 2017 and 2018 in North Idaho combined were the second-driest and hottest such periods on record locally in Coeur d’Alene since the inception of local record-keeping in 1895. In 2019, temperatures were mostly cooler than normal last summer. According to Cliff’s records, there were only 10 days with readings at or above 90 degrees. The hottest days were on July 23 and Aug. 8 with a high of 97 degrees. For the summer of 2020, we do see hotter weather with a few days at or above the 100-degree mark.

The worst wildfire season in the Far West was in 2018. California experienced the single largest wildfire on record, the Camp Fire, which was also the deadliest and most destructive fire in history.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, it’s estimated that approximately 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Unattended campfires, debris burning, downed power lines, discarded lit cigarettes and arson are the main causes. The other 10 percent of wildfires are started by lighting or lava flows.

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