Will this be a tough fire season for the U.S.?

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For the first time in recorded history, Coeur d’Alene’s moisture total has exceeded 20 inches before the end of April. The normal year to date is just over 9 inches and our seasonal average is 26.77 inches. Cliff and I are predicting about 40 inches of rain and melted snow for the 2017 season. That would not be a record as 43.27 inches fell in 2012. However, in this cycle of wide weather “extremes,” I wouldn’t be surprised to see that record fall as well.

April’s normal moisture total is 1.77 inches. As of last Saturday, our total for this month stood at 2.64 inches. In Spokane, the airport has received close to 12 inches of moisture since the beginning of the year. The normal to date is about 5.80 inches and their seasonal normal is a little less than 17 inches.

It also looks like May could turn out to be another wet month as we’re not seeing any shifts in the weather patterns in the Gulf of Alaska. But, this continued cycle of wet weather should start to fade around early June. Many of us are already looking forward to an extended period of sunshine and warmer weather. It’s also possible that our summer season may be drier than normal.

Speaking of warm temperatures, last Saturday was the warmest day of the year as Coeur d’Alene had a high of 69 degrees. The last time our region was in the mid to upper 60s was back on Oct. 2, 2016, with a high of 66 degrees.

As we’re getting closer to the summer season, I’m already getting questions about the upcoming 2017 fire season across the Inland Northwest. With the record moisture that has fallen across the region over the last six months, there is the possibility we could have a few tough months for fires, especially if our weather pattern were to go to the “opposite” extreme of extended dryness during the summer and fall season.

The big moisture totals have led to more growth of vegetation across the region. During this wild cycle of wide weather “extremes” for many years, we’ve seen many instances of places going from drought to floods and vice-versa. With sea-surface temperatures warming up in the south-central Pacific Ocean, perhaps to a new El Nino, weather patterns should also start changing. Our area often experiences drier and warmer weather during the summer and an early fall season during an El Nino. If this were to occur, then a lot of the plants and grasses would “dry out” and be susceptible to the spread of a potential wildfire.

To the south, officials in California are anticipating an active fire season that could be worse than 2016. The Golden State also had record amounts of moisture and although the ground may not be as dry, there is more brush that can burn, which increases the potential for large fires later this summer and fall.

Here in the Inland Empire, scientists are predicting that we’ll have a normal wildfire season based on current weather patterns and forecasts. Despite the recent record amounts of moisture, this does not mean we won’t see a major blaze in the coming months. According to the Insurance Information Institute, the state with the largest percent of households at high or extreme risk from wildfires is Idaho. Colorado is second and California is third. Washington ranks at No. 8.

The U.S. Department of Interior says that 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Campfires that are left attended, the tossing of lit cigarettes, debris burning and arson are some of the main causes. The other 10 percent is from lightning, usually dry lightning, and lava.

Forecasters believe that much of the U.S. will have a normal wildfire season. The areas with above normal activity include the Desert Southwest, Florida and the coastal areas of Georgia and the Carolinas. Below normal regions for wildfires include the central Rockies and the eastern sections of the southern Great Plains into the Tennessee Valley.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, from Jan. 1 through April 22, over 2.2 million acres have burned, one of the highest figures during the first four months in history, from nearly 17,500 fires. Many of the fires are being reported across the Southeast, especially Florida, where severe drought conditions persist. A state of emergency was declared earlier this month as Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture said this was one of the most active wildfire season the state has seen since 2011.

In 2015, wildfires in the U.S. burned a record 10.12 million acres. The previous record was 9.87 million acres set back in 2006. Several years ago, over 1.1 million acres burned across Washington with over 800,000 acres in Idaho as we had one of the worst fire seasons in history. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of that 2015 season anytime soon.

Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com

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