Western wildfires may set records

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The 2017 fire season in the western U.S. has been described as “the worst in recorded history” by many officials. Smoke has been reported across British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Areas in the central U.S. were also seeing the effects of the wildfires from Canada and the West as the upper-level winds were directing the bad air over that part of the country last week.

In Montana, Glacier National Park had to be recently evacuated due to the heavy smoke and fires. In late August, a 20-square-mile blaze burned the historic Sperry Chalet in Montana. This structure was built in 1914 and was a hotel and dining room.

Last week, Cliff and I received many complaints and concerns from the heavy smoke. Air quality in the region was not only the worst in the country, but perhaps the worst in history here in Coeur d’Alene. On Labor Day, Sept. 4, air quality levels hit an unbelievable 303, which is in the “hazardous” category.

Residents of the region were telling us ash falls were seen. Those without air conditioning said their smoke alarms were going off from the smoky conditions. People who have lived in the Coeur d’Alene area say it was “the worst smoke they have ever seen.” Last week, due to the bad air, children were kept inside the schools instead of going outside for recess. Flying into Spokane, I could smell the smoke in the airplane. Smoke was so thick that one could not even see down their neighborhood streets. I heard other stories as I helped work the Philly Express sandwich booth at the Spokane County Interstate Fair. I’ll be there through Saturday, so if you’re in the area, stop by and say hello.

Over the weekend, air quality did improve across the Inland Northwest as winds changed from the northeast to the southwest. But fires continue to rage in most western states.

To help fight the wildfires, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft was used recently in California. The “SuperTanker” can drop more than 19,000 gallons of water or retardant on a stretch of a mile and a half in one run. A lack of contracts only limits the huge airplane to California and one county in Colorado. In the Northwest, smaller aircrafts are used that can hold about 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of water or retardant. The planes are smaller, but better suited to maneuver in some areas.

Also, the federal cost to fight these wildfires in the U.S. has gone up in a big way. For example, in 1985, the total cost was nearly $240 million. Since 2011, the average has been over $1.5 billion. Last year, the figure was close to $2 billion. I was told that this year’s bill will likely be “significantly higher.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are about 67 active large fires. Montana still has the most blazes with 21, which is down from the Labor Day weekend. Early last week, a northeasterly flow brought in a lot of that smoke from Montana into our region, creating the hazardous air quality. For the 2017 season to date, more than 8 million acres have burned. The U.S. normal for entire year is about 5.5 million acres that are charred. To the north in British Columbia, it’s already the worst fire season in history.

Cliff tells me that we may have the driest “astronomical” summer season from June 20 through Sept. 21. The record is 1917 when only 0.39 inches fell. Since June 20, Coeur d’Alene has only reported 0.17 inches. Spokane did break the record for the longest streak without measurable precipitation as today marks the 75th day in a row. The old record was 73 days set back in 1917.

We still see a major change in our weather pattern next week as we get into the normally wetter “new moon” lunar phase combined with the Autumnal Equinox. Moisture totals should finally start to increase across the Inland Northwest, but may remain below normal levels into the middle of October. Cliff and I predict that wetter-than- normal weather may be seen beginning around the middle to the end of next month and into November. As sea-surface temperatures continue to cool down, this could also mean more moisture, including snowfall, for the Inland Northwest this upcoming winter season.

We’re also in the middle of the peak of the tropical storm and hurricane season. The second powerful storm to hit the U.S. this year, Irma, brought heavy damage to Cuba as it made landfall as a Category 5. Widespread major damage will be seen across Florida as Irma moves northwestward. Cliff and I predict that we could see at least one more major hurricane threaten the U.S. coastline between now and the end of next month as more tropical storms and hurricanes are forming in the Atlantic and Pacific waters.

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Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com.

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