Experts warn 2021 wildland fire season will be severe

Prolonged drought, increased temperatures, a lack of moisture, and an extended fire "season" are all exacerbating factors that could add up to a destructive year


As the 2021 wildland fire season moves into full swing, climatologists are predicting another record-shattering year of frequent and intense wildfires across the United States. This reflects a continuing trend of more wildfires, more acres burned, and more severe and longer fire seasons.

From Fire Season to Fire Year

Conditions that allow wildfires to ignite and continue to burn have expanded the fire season. Once lasting only four months, fire season now spans six to eight months. In fact, according to a Climate Central report on western wildfires, today’s fire season is now 105 days longer than it was in the 1970s.

What was once referred to as the fire season is increasingly being called the fire year. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, “Wildfire is year-round for much of the United States and the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.”
What was once referred to as the fire season is increasingly being called the fire year. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, “Wildfire is year-round for much of the United States and the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.” (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

What was once referred to as the fire season is increasingly being called the fire year. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, “Wildfire is year-round for much of the United States and the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.” Fires in the winter months, a rarity not long ago, are becoming the norm.

Even the length of time a typical wildfire burns has increased. Fire scientist Anthony Westerling determined that between 1973 and 1982, fires burned for an average of six days. This number exploded to nearly 52 days, or seven-and-a-half weeks, between 2003 and 2012.

Reality Aligns with Projections

Let’s look at how things are shaping up for the 2021 wildland fire season.

From Jan. 1 to May 17, 2021, there were 21,523 wildfires compared with 15,765 for the same period in 2020, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. About 552,711 acres were burned compared with 339,855 during the same period in 2020. Based on these statistics, the number of wildfires and acres burned already exceeds last year’s.

Keeping in mind that extremely dry conditions in 2020 led to the most extreme wildfire season on record in California and Colorado, things are looking dire for this fire season, especially given drought conditions in most states are more severe this year.

Next, we focus on three western states—California, Colorado, and Arizona—in three distinct geographic regions and discuss their wildfire potential and risk, review the 2020 fire season, and learn what makes these states prone to burn.

Northern and Southern Regions – California

For residents of California, it’s not a matter of if the fires come, it’s a matter of when.

In 2020, the Golden State experienced its most active fire season on record due to an extremely dry year. Four major factors are contributing to the increase in wildland fires in the state—the changing climate, people, a history of fire suppression, and the Santa Ana winds.

Not surprisingly, the state’s native climate is a contributor. Like many western states, California receives most of its precipitation in the fall and winter, with a lack of rainfall and hotter temperatures characterizing the summer months (or fire season).

Residents increasingly live in wildfire-prone areas and often accidently ignite fires through everyday activities, such as sparks caused by tools or other machinery, fireworks, or improperly extinguished fires. Downed power lines are another side effect of human presence.

The state’s history of suppressing fires has resulted in an accumulation of fuel that makes wildfires worse. Since the early 1900s, land management agencies across the country have adhered to the U.S. Forest Service’s policy to extinguish fires as quickly as possible. Although originally well intentioned, the policy has resulted in a buildup of dry fuel that more easily ignites in today’s climate conditions.

The gusty Santa Ana winds of Southern California cause fires to spread three times faster and burn near to urban areas. Completing the cycle is climate change, which is inextricably linked with the other factors.

During the first three months of 2021, anxious forecasters and residents watched as weather events bringing moisture from the Pacific repeatedly veered north, missing Central California. By early April, the rainfall deficit in California was 50 inches below normal, and total precipitation was 70% below normal for the water year (Oct. 1–Sept. 30).

With California’s current water year tied for the third-driest on record, the state is facing exceptional and extreme drought conditions. For a state that is synonymous with devastating wildfires, this does not bode well.

Earlier this year, San José State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory reported that the level of moisture in plant life, normally at its peak in April, was well below its annual average and previous record lows. Dr. Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Laboratory, recently tweeted: “Fire season 2021 is looking grim.”

Clements and his students visited several sites every two weeks to take samples of plants so they could evaluate their fuel-moisture content (FMC). The FMC is the ratio of moisture to flammable material in plants, trees, and shrubs. The lower the FMC, the more prone vegetation is to burn.

On April 1, Clements made an alarming observation—the vegetation at two of the three sites his team visited was dormant and stressed due to lack of moisture. This is significant because California depends on green, healthy plants to keep wildfires at bay. Without them, fires will ignite more readily and spread more quickly.

Now, with 92% of the state experiencing drought conditions, Clements’ research may be a harbinger of things to come.

In preparation for the 2021 wildland fire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $538 million Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness Package to support wildfire suppression, improve forest buildup, and ensure resilience within communities.

The plan comprises part of the state’s $1 billion investment in forest health and community fire resilience. This investment includes the governor’s allocation of $80.74 million in emergency funds for 1,399 additional firefighters with Cal Fire. These funds will also help the state with its fuel management and wildfire response efforts and assist in expanding its task force.

A firefighter watches as a firefighting helicopter drops water on a brush fire scorching at least 100 acres in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Smoke rises from a brush fire is seen behind homes in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A firefighter watches as smoke rises from a brush fire scorching at least 100 acres in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A helicopter drops water as smoke rises from a brush fire scorching at least 100 acres in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles on Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Smoke rises from a brush fire is seen behind homes in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Members of the Little Tujunga Hot Shots take a break after fighting the Willow Fire near the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Carmel Valley, Calif., Wednesday, June 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Rocky Mountain Region – Colorado

Wildfires have always been part of Colorado’s natural ecosystems, but never more so than during the past two decades.

Historical data cited by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control indicates that, of the 20 largest wildfires in state history, nine have occurred since 2018, 15 have occurred since 2012, and all 20 have occurred since 2001. This equates to 45% of the state’s largest fires having occurred in the past two years, 75% in the past eight years, and 100% in the past 20 years.

In the 1960s, the number of annual wildfires reported in Colorado was 457. These fires burned an annual average of 8,170 acres. By the 1990s, the numbers more than doubled to approximately 1,300 fires and 22,000 acres burned annually. From the 1990s to the 2000s, the numbers more than doubled once again. Between 2011 and 2020, Colorado recorded an average of 5,369 fires and 233,728 acres burned annually.

According to the DFPC, the year 2020 was the state’s most active fire year ever recorded. Colorado experienced more than 100 days of fire and three of its largest wildfires to date. The data indicate that a total of 6,761 fires burned 744,120 acres throughout the state.

Factors that influenced last year’s record-breaking fire season were unseasonably warm conditions, lack of moisture, plenty of fire fuels, and increased recreational activity across the state. This year’s wildfire season has the potential to be equally destructive due to the forecast of above-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation through June.

On April 8, Gov. Jared Polis and state fire agencies held a news conference to discuss this year’s wildfire outlook and release the state’s Wildfire Preparedness Plan.

Due to last year’s record-setting wildfire season, state fire managers are taking a more preemptive and proactive approach as they head into spring. They are making sure the right resources are at the ready to quickly and aggressively respond to fires before they rage out of control.

This approach requires additional resources and increased coordination among local, state, and federal agencies. “We’re trying to provide more resources to the local fire chiefs and the local sheriffs to keep fires from getting large,” said Mike Morgan, Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

With fire season beginning in mid-May, state officials will be pre-positioning crews in fire-prone areas when weather conditions are ripe for wildfires to develop. They have already expanded their contracts with air tankers and helicopter crews through November, and a recently passed bill will allow the state to add a new helicopter to its aviation fleet by the end of 2022.

The state is supporting its new fire prevention and response strategy with an approved $30 million of additional spending.

During the news conference, Polis indicated that Colorado’s rapid population growth is having an impact on the increased frequency of fires—a whopping 87% of which are caused by humans. A side effect of this growth is the expansion of people into the state’s wildland-urban interface (WUI). More than 50% of the state’s residents live on wildfire-prone land.

Southwest Region – Arizona

The 2020 wildfire season in Arizona was one of the worst in 10 years.

In total, the state experienced 2,520 wildfires across 978,519 acres of state, federal, and tribal lands. This has experts wondering what 2021 will bring.

“We do have the potential for an early start to our fire activity with the widespread activity potentially by June,” said Tiffany Davila, public affairs officer for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFMM).

This prediction is made due to the especially wet winter of 2019/2020. All the precipitation resulted in a large growth of grasses that Davila refers to as “a carpet of kindling basically.” Whatever was not burnt last year remains as fuel for this year’s fires.

This past winter, in contrast, was rather dry. Parts of Arizona are still experiencing the La Nina effect, characterized by warmer temperatures and less moisture. As a result, areas such as the Sonoran Desert, which includes metro Phoenix and the majority of southwest Arizona, are bracing for the same high levels of fire activity witnessed in 2020.

One preemptive measure the Department of Forestry and Fire Management takes is fuel mitigation through prescribed burns. On March 9, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law a new fuels reduction program designed to assist with these efforts.

The Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative will enable the department to employ an extra 700 inmates from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry. These inmates will assist with fuel reduction statewide by removing vegetation from populated areas. “That will obviously allow us to cast a bigger safety across the state, get into our higher-risk area, and do more project work throughout the area,” Davila said.

Although Arizona does not have an official “fire season,” fire activity does increase in frequency in as the weather warms up in late April and early May. This peak typically continues until the torrential rains of monsoon season put an end to Arizona’s wildfire peak.

In 2020, however, the monsoons never came. Andrew Demmer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix, remembers, “It was a pretty poor performance for the monsoon across the state…so the fire season really didn’t end the way that we typically see.”

Yet, Demmer remains optimistic about 2021. He believes that because the past two monsoon seasons were almost nonexistent, chances for this year look good. The data seem to support this, with the National Weather Services’ Climate Prediction Center forecasting a 40% chance of an above-average monsoon season.

What can the residents of Phoenix do to help prevent another active fire year?

Because more than 80% of Arizona’s wildfires in 2020 were caused by humans, the DFFM warns people to always check the weather and avoid burning on windy days, make sure water and a shovel are nearby if they do burn, and avoid using power tools that may spark a grass fire.

Additional human causes of fire include abandoned campfires or those that are not properly extinguished, or sparks caused by vehicles dragging chains or a rim dragging on pavement after a tire blowout. “It’s very important that people pay attention to what they’re doing,” Davila said.

Taming the Tinderbox

Although fire is historically a natural part of most healthy ecosystems, climate change has altered some of the underlying variables that influence the frequency and severity of wildfires.

What can be done to combat climate change and its risks?

Limit Development in the WUI. In the United States, the number of homes in the WUI grew from 31 million in 1990 to 43 million in 2010. This accounts for an increase of more than 30% across 20 years. Wildfire risk can be reduced by managing the number of residents living in this environment and ensuring existing homes are less vulnerable to fire.

Restore the Forest. Managing accumulated fuel in an area can reduce the risk of severe wildfires. This can be achieved by allowing some natural fires to burn themselves out, using prescribed burns, thinning the forest, removing excess deadwood and underbrush, and allowing animals to graze to limit vegetation.

Public Education and Preparedness. Residents should understand wildfire risk and the importance of using risk-reduction strategies to keep themselves, first responders, and their property safe. They should also have their own wildfire preparedness plan in place in the event of an emergency.

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