2017 Wildland Fire Update

2017 Wildland Fire Update

The 2017 fire season is continuing the trend of the last number of years that has led many to suggest we are in a ‘new normal’ for wildland fire: fires igniting with a higher frequency, burning with a greater intensity, and covering larger areas. While fires are not quite on pace to eclipse 2015’s record-breaking 10+ million acre fire season, this season is still running 26% ahead of the ten-year acreage average—in a decade that has already set numerous records for wildfire severity, intensity, and longevity.

Using information provided by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), this update offers a snapshot of how the 2017 fire season is shaping up throughout the West, and compares it to historical trends and future outlooks.

West-wide, over 4.86 million acres have already burned this year. This far outpaces 2016, when 3.4 million acres burned all season. During the past ten years, the average area burned by mid-August has been around 4 million acres across the entire country. Unlike last year, which saw unprecedented wildfires spreading across the southeastern United States, nearly all of this season’s wildfires have occurred in the west.

On an individual basis, perhaps none have fared worse than Montana this season. “What was originally predicted to be a ‘below average fire season’ for Montana has turned into a challenging fire season due to a new phenomenon meteorologists are calling ‘flash droughts’,” says Crystal Beckman, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC). Flash droughts occur when a sudden onset of high temperatures is accompanied by little or no precipitation, decreasing soil moisture. The severity of this year’s flash droughts means Montana is on pace to experience one of its most severe fire seasons since the late 1980s.

As of August 23, over 540,000 acres were burned in Montana, which is more than triple the total that was burned in the state in all of 2016. The Lodgepole Complex fire alone burned nearly a quarter-million acres in the eastern part of the state, constituting the second-largest fire in Montana’s history and prompting an emergency declaration from Governor Steve Bullock. The fire cost $16.6 million to suppress and qualified for a FEMA Fire Mitigation Assistance Grant.

According to Mike DeGrosky, Montana DNRC Fire and Aviation Management Bureau Chief, collaboration has been key to managing the state’s historic fire season. According to DeGrosky, “Fire suppression efforts in Montana continue to demonstrate the value of partnerships between local, state, and federal agencies. This continued coordination with partners is what it will take to work through a wildfire season such as this one.”

Oregon is currently experiencing a mid-summer wildfire surge, with over a quarter-million acres currently on fire. This includes the Chetco Bar fire, which is the largest fire in the nation at the moment, approaching 100,000 acres in size. That fire is being managed by over 1,000 personnel and has involved numerous evacuations and closures. The largest fire of 2017 to date, however, was the Northwest Oklahoma Complex, which burnt through 780,000 acres of prairie grasslands in the Oklahoma panhandle and southern Kansas.

Nevada is not faring much better this year, with the Roosters Comb and Four Seasons Complex fires burning a combined 380,000 acres fueled largely by tall grasses and sagebrush. California and Idaho are both well ahead of ten-year averages as well. California experienced two 80,000+ acre fires this season, including the Detwiler, the largest wildfire on state land in the U.S. In addition, Idaho has had four fires over 20,000 acres, including the 50,000+ acre Highline and Craig Mountain Complex fires. Similarly, Arizona has experienced six wildfires in the 20-50,000 acre range.

Uncharacteristically large wildfires burn through cash as quickly as they burn through fuels. Utah’s 78,000 acre Brian Head Fire, for example, more than doubled the state’s firefighting costs this year, accounting for $10 million of $18 million total spent on suppression activities. In an average year, the state spends around $9 million.

Looking ahead, it appears likely that significant wildfire activity will continue throughout the fall. The National Interagency Fire Center publishes a wildfire ‘forecast’ that considers current weather and fuels conditions as well as medium-term weather and climate outlooks. According to the NIFC, the rest of August should remain hotter and drier than normal, with the exception of a strong monsoonal flow across the Four Corners region that should bring moisture and lower temperatures. As a result, the most severe wildfire activity is likely to occur in the Northern Rockies, California, and Nevada.

The autumn months are also predicted to be warmer and drier than average, with above-average fire potential predicted to linger in California, Montana, and North Dakota through November. A full forecast with region and state specific predictions can be found on the NIFC website: https://www.nifc.gov/nicc/predictive/outlooks/outlooks.htm.

Wildfire update prepared by Jonathan Hayden, WFLC Presidential Management Fellow.