June 30, 2011 in Washington Voices

West may see longer fire season

Randy Mann

The U.S. Forest Service said earlier this month that the West may be in for “a severe wildfire season.” The wet winter and spring has resulted in a “bumper crop of combustible vegetation.”

It’s still early in the fire season, but we’re already seeing major wildfires in the West. The Wallow fire burning in Arizona is the worst in that state’s recorded history. Approximately 4 million acres have been scorched in the U.S. this year. That is nearly three times the normal, based on data over the last decade.

Local officials recently stated that the 2011 fire season will start later than normal in Washington and Idaho but will likely be more dangerous due to the increased vegetation.

One of the worst fires in our region occurred during the firestorm in 1991. That huge blaze began on Oct. 16 as gale-force winds of more than 60 mph uprooted trees and downed power lines. In some cases the live power lines ignited the dry grass and brush. The 92 fires destroyed 114 homes and killed one person. The blazes lasted for six days. In Hayden Lake, northeast of Coeur d’Alene, on the same day a mud-and-ash storm blasted the region. Many homes turned totally black on the west side and had to be repainted.

The West’s normal fire season used to stretch from late July through November, sometimes into December or later in Southern California. But, we’re already seeing major fires from Arizona to western Texas.

Officials say that a long fire season can’t be blamed entirely on droughts and climate change. Increasing numbers of people are looking to escape the cities and go into the country and forest regions. As brush becomes more tinder, fire danger increases rapidly. Tossed cigarettes, smoldering campfires and fires meant to burn weeds or garbage sometimes get out of control. So be careful.

Another culprit for the start of major fires is dry lightning. Multiple lightning strikes during thunderstorms, combined with no precipitation, often leads to wildfires in our region.

On average, July and August are the driest months of the year. In July, the Spokane International Airport normally receives .76 inches of rain with .68 inches in August.

With La Niña finally ending, weather patterns are beginning to change. It still looks like a hotter and drier summer across the Inland Northwest as high pressure locks in over the area.

Contact meteorologist Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com.

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