Will This Be A Bad Year For Wildfires?

Will This Be A Bad Year For Wildfires?

Sunday, 19 May 2024 17:59

Thousands of wildland firefighters begin to prepare for the upcoming fire season each year. During the winter snows in the West, it is sometimes hard to imagine the same areas burning in the summer, but they can and often do.

Predicting the wildfire potential is very difficult; however, there are many dedicated meteorologists, fire behavior specialists, and firefighters whose jobs are to do just that.

But even with everyone trying to predict what nature will do in the form of fire, it can be very challenging to get it right all the time.

Every year, the public asks firefighters what the predicted fire season will be like. If we had that magic crystal ball, we would not risk our lives fighting the fire but make money from telling everyone with full assurance when and where fires will occur. 

We cannot answer whether there will be a bad fire year for wildfires with that much certainty, but we can give fairly accurate predictions across the country of fire trends on a seasonal basis, usually two to three months out.

This article will summarize the upcoming fire season predictions of 2024 based on current data presented by NIFC in the April forecast that predicts wildland fire trends through midsummer.

Will This Be A Bad Fire Year For Wildfires?

The National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services Center hires many well-qualified scientists and field personnel to try and predict the upcoming fire season in all areas of the United States. Wildland fire services depend on the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, for fire research, safety training, technology, and predictive services.

Over the past few years, we have seen extreme fire behavior in different regions, with record-breaking fires occurring in the Northwest and Pacific Coast regions. We have also seen damaging fire behavior in the Southeast region. We have had significant local fires in all areas of the country during the past few years.

Some say climate change is to blame. Others note significant drought situations. Groups will say that mismanagement of our forest lands increases fire potential. The truth is that all of these factors, along with weather patterns such as El Nino and La Nina, affect the frequency of fires and associated fire behavior.

Fire Season Peaks At Different Times In Different Regions

Each region of the United States will experience peak fire season at different times of the year, depending on the factors already discussed. Usually, there is a historical cycle of fire behavior in a region over time, with extreme fire behavior experienced every three to ten years. However, the historical cycle has changed and is more difficult to predict.

The western region of the United States typically experiences its fire season during the summer months. The season starts normally in May and continues until September, with the length expanding during drought conditions.

The eastern region experiences a split fire season. The first season begins in spring, usually from March through the full leaf out in early May. The second season starts in October and lasts until mid-November. During drought conditions, each season will extend in length.

NIFC Wildfire Predictions

Forecasters predict a slow start to the 2024 wildfire season in much of the United States. The Great Basin and Southwest may see elevated activity starting this summer. 

That outlook is a four-month forecast produced monthly by the National Interagency Fire Center, or NIFC, a group of wildland fire experts from eight federal agencies that supports and coordinates wildland fire resources across the country. The report focuses on the occurrence of significant fires that require an NIFC management team to be dispatched. 

This year, across much of the United States, the fuels that would typically start wildfires are wet and, in some places, under snow.

For example, an above-normal snowpack and early spring storms in California will keep the state below average in fire potential through July. The Southwest will also have a slower start to the season after recent rain storms soaked vegetation. 

After a mostly snow-free and warm winter, the Upper Midwest is experiencing above-normal fire risk in April, making the area a high concern to NIFC staff this spring. Wetter weather in April and May will likely decrease fire risk in the region, according to the outlook.

The potential for significant fires in May is predicted to be above average in the Southwest and Hawaii and below average in California. The overall risk in the Southeast is expected to remain below normal to normal throughout the rest of the spring and summer.

The outlook is slightly more pessimistic for the summer, especially for the Southwest and the Great Basin. Wetter fuels should dry out quickly in those regions, leading to an above-average risk of significant fires in southeast Arizona, southern New Mexico, south Idaho, northeast Nevada, and northwest Utah starting in late May and continuing through July.

Forecasters also predict an above-average potential for significant fires in Hawaii starting in May because of drought conditions. Last year, comparable conditions and high winds contributed to the devastating fire in Lahaina on the island of Maui.

The rest of the country will likely see average fire potential from mid-May through July, except for parts of California, which will still have below-average fire potential after the wet winter.

Reduced Prescribe Fires This Season May Increase Fire Potential

One drawback of a wetter start to the wildfire season is that fire managers have been limited in their ability to carry out prescribed burns, particularly in the Southeast, California, and higher elevations in the Southwest.

Prescribed burns consume wildfire fuels in a controlled manner, but wet fuel does not catch easily. Burn opportunities have been limited to burning piles of brush, branches, and trees rather than over large areas.

Without prescribed burns, the risk of significant fires can increase, though disruptions to fuel management programs over just one year don’t typically escalate fire risk noticeably.


Overall, NIFC Predicts A Below Normal Fire Season Through Early Summer

Looking at all the data in the April report, it seems that overall, we can expect a below-normal to normal fire season for most of the country through the early summer. However, with changing El Nino and La Nina patterns in the Pacific expected later this year, the forecast can change quickly.

The further out the forecast is, the more uncertainty there is. Any singular weather event this spring, such as a strong heat wave, intense lightning, or a widespread wind storm, could quickly escalate fire activity nationally.

A few days of wet weather, on the other hand, can completely reset a region to below-normal fire conditions.

Firefighters utilize NIFC's constant tracking of fire potential each month, which can predict fire potential in the short term. However, because of many factors, the predictions are less reliable a few months into the future.

Either way, wildland firefighters must always be ready to handle whatever level of fire season that occurs.

StreetWise® Provides Software To Prepare For Wildfire Seasons

StreetWise® is a public safety information services company in Terrell, North Carolina. Its elite group of progressive, like-minded investors, managers, technical developers, and advisors forms the parent company, Hangar 14 Solutions, LLC.

With an all-in-one system like StreetWise, you can be confident that your department’s response will improve. For first responders, every single second matters. You need every advantage to save time. Our software improves life-saving situational awareness that can save the lives of your firefighters and those you are helping. 

StreetWise can assist you with developing pre-incident plans and provide advanced software to prepare for any type of fire season. If you would like more information on the services we offer, check out our products or reach out to us for a free demonstration