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Drought spurs fears of active wildfire season

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN

SPECIAL REPORT

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Wildfire
Drought
National Interagency Fire Center
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

(CNN) -- A persistent drought, coupled with unseasonably high temperatures and gusty winds, have led to a record number of wildfires this year, and weather and fire officials say conditions are ripe for more activity this spring.

From January 1 through March 22, more than 17,000 wildfires have been reported, with 1.5 million-plus acres burned across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The number of fires eclipses the five-year average of slightly more than 11,000 fires for the same period. The acreage burned this year is triple the 549,866 acres of 2000, the previous high in the last six years.

Weather and fire officials said they fear what has occurred in Texas and Oklahoma, where the greatest damage has been reported so far this year, could be a preview of what is possible for wide swaths of the Southwest and Great Plains over the next few months.

In Texas, at least 11 fatalities were blamed on the fires, and eight towns had to be evacuated in early March, according to Justice Jones of the Texas Forest Service.

Rainfall over the past few years helped to grow the grasses and underbrush in the state, Jones said. However, the drought and lack of moisture over the winter dried out the grasses, making them ready fuel for fires.

As a result, "the entire state is experiencing unusual fire behavior," with outbreaks more intense and wide-ranging than normal, Jones said.

The U.S. wildfire season is year-round, with certain regions more vulnerable to fires during different parts of the year.

The regions most vulnerable are the Southwest, Southern Plains, Florida, and Southern California. A seasonal outlook by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, issued in conjunction with the National Interagency Fire Center, listed the potential as above normal from February to June for those regions.

During that same period, the potential for fires is either average or below average for the Northeast, Northwest, Northern Plains and much of the South.

In late summer and fall, the potential for fires will increase for the Northwest, parts of the Rocky Mountains, Michigan and Wisconsin, weather experts said.

La Niņa blamed for dry weather

Effects from La Niņa, a term used to describe cold weather conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean, contributed to the unusually dry weather, said Douglas Leconte, a NOAA drought specialist.

Drought conditions are expected to continue through June for the Southwest and Southern Plains and may expand into Kansas and parts of Colorado, according to NOAA's seasonal drought outlook. The drought also may persist in parts of the Eastern Seaboard, including North Carolina and Maryland.

Some storms have pushed through the Southwest and Plains in recent weeks, including a system that brought snow, heavy rain and flooding to areas of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Texas on March 20, the last day of winter. But it may be too late to change the conditions in place for the fire season, experts said.

"The rain and snow arrived too late to offset the impacts from months of record dry weather across the Southwest, resulting in the continuing potential for a dangerous fire season," retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of the NOAA National Weather Service, said in a statement.

CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers added: "You need storm after storm after storm to help out this drought situation. You can't get one rain on one weekend. That's not going to relieve the drought."

Wildfires sometimes avoidable

National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Rose Davis said that having the conditions for a possibly active wildfire season doesn't necessarily mean one will occur.

"You need ignition sources," she said, referring to lightning, abandoned campfires, fireworks, hunting camps in the fall or careless behavior such as lit cigarettes tossed out of car windows.

"We thought last year the Northwest was in serious, serious shape, but they just didn't have the ignitions," she said.

Most of the Texas fires earlier this year are being blamed on "accidental starts," Jones said, though lightning also caused some.

Jones said he believes wildfires are inevitable in certain parts of the country, much like some places lie in flood plains and are prone to flooding every time heavy rains occur.

"Ecosystems in Texas have evolved with fires being a part of that. What the difference is that there are homes now being built in the path of those fires that are occurring and have occurred for millennia," he said.

"What we're focusing on doing as an agency is helping communities get prepared for wildfires and living in harmony with those fires that are inevitable."

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