PHOENIX – The wildfires sizzling through dried-out forests and grasslands across the Southwest are a bad omen in a fire season that is expected to continue for weeks until nature provides relief in the form of seasonal rains.
Fire officials are working to contain existing blazes even as they brace for new threats, setting up a dangerous and frustrating summer. But authorities don’t expect to be stressed beyond their limits.
While much of the South and Southwest has received less winter precipitation than normal, the rain and snow farther north has led to huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range in California and in the Rockies.
The wildfire outlook issued by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise calls for above-normal fire potential in the Southwest through September, but normal or milder than normal fire conditions across the rest of the West.
Millions of acres across Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas have been scorched in recent weeks.
And firefighters are battling tinder boxes in east Texas and north Florida, as well – officials blame fires in those states for at least six deaths this year.
Rains are expected to reduce the fire danger in Florida this week, but seasonal storms that normally stop the threat in the Southwest aren’t expected to come until mid-July at the soonest. Officials say that means the three large fires now churning across Arizona will not be the last.
Forestry officials say the state has seen one of its most dangerous fire seasons in years, with more than 1,500 fires burning 1,300 square miles so far. That total far exceeds 2010, when just 132 square miles burned across the state.
In other states
• New Mexico officials say conditions there are abnormally dry. Much of the state is now in the grips of either severe or extreme drought. Grasslands began burning in late February and the threat has now moved into the state’s higher elevation forests, where recent blazes have led to evacuations.
• Florida’s hot and dry weather has sparked more than 3,600 blazes burning more than 190,000 acres.
• Texas is also in the grip of a drought, and wildfires have scorched about 4,800 square miles – more than any year in the state’s history, according to the Texas Forest Service. One blaze forced thousands to evacuate Monday northwest of Houston. Officials say across Texas 20 other fires are burning and have scorched 120 square miles and consumed at least 35 homes. Blazes in the state this fire season are being blamed in four deaths – three firefighters battling separate blazes and a child killed in a car accident on a smoky interstate.