Winter Snow And Rain May Lead To More Destructive Wildfire Season

Jul 4, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It is wildfire season here in the West. Several large fires are burning in states like Arizona and Utah. Much of the region is coming off of a winter that had record-setting rain and snow, and that's prompting an unexpected warning from wildfire forecasters. The drought is over, but the chances for a bad season are higher than you might think. NPR's Kirk Siegler explains.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Here's the calculus for people like Ed Delgado. His job is to crunch the numbers and turn them into wildfire forecasts. You get a lot of rain. It's beautifully lush and green with tall grasses and shrubs exploding with foliage.

ED DELGADO: While it's ended the drought, it's actually produced a lot of fine fuels - grasses and brush.

SIEGLER: And that's the catch. Delgado works at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. He says it doesn't take long for all that new growth to dry out. For the past few weeks, much of the Southwest has been cooking in extreme heat. It's like someone's blowing a hot air dryer on all that shrubland.

DELGADO: You know, to complicate things, if you get any wind, and we've seen some windy periods the last few weeks with some of the troughs and fronts that have come through the West, that helps push fire fairly rapidly. So you can get a lot of fire growth in just a few hours.

SIEGLER: So you take all that new fuel and mix in the wind and heat, and you get the kind of fast-moving wildfires that have been causing scores of home evacuations from coastal California to the foothills of southern Utah. In central Arizona, near the town of Prescott, the incident commander on the Goodwin Fire, John Pierson, said just a few days of extreme heat changed the conditions on the ground there real quick. In the hours right after the Goodwin Fire ignited, firefighters mostly had to stand down.

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JOHN PIERSON: Due to the nature of the fuel bed, the fuel loading, they just basically had to disengage because of safety concerns.

SIEGLER: Around the Fourth of July tends to be when the Southwest gets its most severe wildfires, before the summer monsoon rains arrive later. Fire managers, meanwhile, are pointing to one good piece of news - the wildfire threat is still almost nonexistent at higher elevations in states like Wyoming and Montana, as well as California's Sierra Nevada, where much of the terrain remains covered in deep snow. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.