This past weekend saw 22 wildfires burning across the nation in what experts say is an early start to an increasingly intense fire season. Over nine million acres burned in 2012. That made last year the third-worst in the past 50 for recorded American wildfires, next to 2006 and 2007.
All this year's active wildfires have consumed 3,500 acres or less apiece. Five of them have recently received updates on the nation's InciWeb system. Several fires from last fall, including the massive (nearly 200,000 acres) blaze in Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest, are still under observation.
2013 promises little change in the occurrence and force of these disasters. Their severity has been linked to global climate change. Drought, severe and widespread in 2012, continues. It especially impacts the western and central United States. Depending on precipitation this winter and spring, the Rocky Mountains, southern California, the Plains states, and forested parts of the South will be unusually dry until at least May. Temperatures are also on a rising trend, last year having been the warmest on record for the United States.
California's prescribed burns and natural wildfires
Three of California's five current fires are prescribed burns initiated by safety officials.
Controlled burning is a recognized tool of forest managers, though its use has become somewhat controversial. It gets rid of the diseased and dead wood, overcrowded saplings, and dried vegetation that fuel wildfires. It improves timber growth by removing invasive grass, undesirable plants, and ravaging insects like bark beetles. It also contributes to the ecosystem, providing forage for wild animals.
Press reports on Friday noted that 200 firefighters had brought a small wildfire in California's Santa Ana River bottom under control, containing 60% of it by Saturday morning. Gusty Santa Ana winds, extremely low humidity, and an unusual heat spell that saw some temps climb as high as 90 degrees F. were blamed for this fire.
The state faces loss of front-line firefighters because state-incarcerated nonviolent offenders, who have volunteered to dig fire lines and clear debris since World War II, are now being held in county jails to minimize overcrowding in the main California penal system. Inmates made up two-thirds of the work force in the Santa Ana fire. State officials estimate that the number of workers kept in the state's 39 minimum-security fire camps will drop by about 60% later in the season. County prison contracts, not yet negotiated, may cover some of the shortfall.
13 active blazes in Mississippi's Natchez Trace
The state of Mississippi is 65% forested, says Heather Sophia Eschete of Mississippi State. Wood products are crucial to its economy. The state averages 4,000 fires burning over 60,000 acres annually, caused mainly by arson and debris burning.
Many small fires have started recently in the parkway along the 444-mile Natchez Trace, a historic Native American trail later used by settlers.
Other areas of concern
- Colorado, Arizona, and Oklahoma all have active burns going on.
- Crews are readying in Oregon, a state that requires yard clearing by homeowners and can fine residents up to $100,000 if a wildfire starts on their property.
- Fire officials in northern Virginia foresee a higher risk than usual because of lower than average snowfalls. The state's Department of Forestry found that open burning was the leading cause of wildfires (30%) in Virginia, followed by arson (20%) and people smoking (14%).
- Northeast Arkansas and southeastern Missouri are on alert because of missed monthly rainfall, an inch behind in February.
NOTE: Local fire reports often list only specific human-made causes of wildfire. Lightning and downed power lines ignite many more.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers developments and environmental issues in conventional, solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. She detailed events and policy at last fall's 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar. Sandy has also reported on extreme weather disasters, including superstorm Sandy, winter storm Nemo, and the massive summer wildfires of the past decade.
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