New numbers just out from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) confirm what the flames and smoke in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have already suggested. 2011 is already one of the worst wildfire seasons in the last decade and the hot summer months that are typically the worst of the season are still ahead.
So far this year, more than 4.1 million acres have burned, according to the daily Incident Management Situation Report (SIT). That's more than 6,000 square miles and it's more acreage scorched than in all of last year and more at this time of year than in any year in the last decade.
"It's La Niña," says Ken Frederick, a NIFC spokesman, referring to the winter weather pattern that usually directs rain and snow to Northern states, especially in the west. "The southwest just didn't get precipitation over the winter."
More than 9,700 firefighters and support workers have been deployed so far, including 82 percent of the nation's elite wildfire crews known as "hotshots," who typically attack the biggest and most threatening blazes. 76 of the nation's 92 hotshot crews are out on the fire lines.
"It is early," Frederick says," and it's an indication of the winter we've just come out of."
The early and busy wildfire season follows four years of what was near or below average wildfire activity at this point in those seasons. The acreage burned this year is more than double the ten-year average.
But the wildfire season in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest is delayed, Frederick says, because of the heavy snowpack in the high country and winter and spring rain at lower elevations. Some mountain areas had near record snowfall this winter and a cool spring has slowed the snowmelt.
Fire forecasters are expecting a normal fire season in the high country but lush growth in the valleys, especially in the high deserts of eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and the Great Basin, is beginning to dry out. Those grasses and brush turn to fuel as the summer's heat rises and humidity drops.
The immediate forecast is for more very dry conditions in the southwest, and heat and wind stretching from southern Colorado through eastern Arizona and western Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, according to fire potential maps posted by the U.S. Forest Service. That's a recipe for more fire.
The biggest blaze in that region and nationwide is the Wallow wildfire in eastern Arizona. At 452,000 acres, it is just shy of the state's record wildfire, the Rodeo-Chediski blaze, which was also called "The Monster" as it burned more than 462,000 acres in 2002. 30,000 people were forced from their homes and 426 homes, business and other structures were destroyed, all in another region of eastern Arizona.
The Wallow wildfire threatens 2700 homes and has damaged or destroyed 34 so far. More than 4,000 firefighters and support crews are working the blaze.
"Barring something miraculous, [Wallow] will surpass Rodeo-Chediski," Frederick says. "But we have a lot of people trying to prevent that."
Frederick is also matter-of-fact about the wildfire season so far. "You play the hand that's dealt you," he says.