The first day of summer is less than a month away, which means that wildfire season is fast-approaching as well. The Inland Northwest suffered through one of the worst fire seasons, especially in terms of the number of blazes, in recorded history in 2015. Over 1.1 million acres burned across Washington with over 800,000 acres in Idaho. For this year, there have already been several small blazes reported in eastern Washington.
The majority of the western fires last year were in Alaska as approximately 5.2 million acres were burned. Only the 2004 season was worse when over 6.5 million acres went up in smoke. Normally, Alaska sees fires that claim about 800,000 acres each year.
Wildfires in southwestern Canada consumed over 700,000 acres in British Columbia in 2015. For this year, things are not looking much better for our friends to the north. The disastrous Fort McMurray fire in Alberta has consumed nearly 600,000 acres since it began in early May. This event is the worst disaster in Canada’s history as over 2,400 homes and buildings have been destroyed. Damage may exceed $9 billion. As of last week, this fire was still out of control.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires in the U.S. burned a record 10.12 million acres in 2015. The previous record was 9.87 million acres set back in 2006. The top three fires in 2015 were in Alaska. The Galena, Tanana and Middle Yukon fires scorched over 1 million areas in that state. The fourth biggest fire in 2015 was Idaho’s Soda Fire which was located in the southwestern portion of the state. Over 279,000 acres were burned. The North Star Fire near Nespelem, Washington, burned about 218,000 acres and sent smoke across North Idaho and eastward to Colorado last August.
For 2016, there have been 17,433 fires reported through May 20. Last year, there were 18,544 blazes through the 20th of May. However, in 2015, approximately 361,000 acres went up in smoke through the middle of May. This year, nearly 1.5 million acres in the U.S. have burned. We’re already ahead of last year, but that does not mean it will be another record season. For example, in 2011, there were 25,189 fires that burned over 2.5 million acres from January 1 through May 13. By the end of 2011, over 8 million acres burned compared to an average of nearly 6.5 million acres.
On May 1, the National Interagency Fire Center issued their National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for May through August. The areas with an above-average threat of wildfires this summer include Hawaii, Alaska, the Desert Southwest, Southern California and the Great Basin. Things could be very bad in 2016 for Southern California as extreme drought conditions still persist. The big El Nino rains never arrived as seasonal moisture totals were near 50 percent. The rest of the U.S. is forecast to have a near to below-normal threat of wildfires.
To the north, Canadian officials are forecasting relatively hot and dry weather from eastern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The drought in Alberta is now expected to worsen this summer, which will not help their fire situation.
Here in the Inland Empire, we’re facing a normal wildfire season based on the forecast. Although conditions are not expected to be as bad as last year, 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 number eight.
The U.S. Department of Interior says that 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Campfires that are left unattended, 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. So please be very careful.