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U.S. fire season is on track to be one of the slowest in years

The sun shines through trees in a stand that has been lightly burned by a wildfire.
Sawtooth National Forest
The sun shines through trees in a stand that has been lightly burned by a wildfire.

With the historic Canadian wildfires and tragic blaze in Maui, it’s been a notable fire season in some ways. But as it draws to a close, the number of acres burned in the United States is far below recent years.

Toward the end of last month, some 2.4 million acres had burned in the U.S. That’s nearly 4.5 million fewer than the same period last year, and roughly 40% of the 10-year average, according to data provided by federal fire officials.

Numbers through Oct. 10 show a smaller but comparably large gap between the current fire season and long-term averages, though officials say they are experiencing issues with year-to-date data. The data cited above were not impacted by those issues.

With last winter’s massive snow packs, federal forecasts suggested in late spring that much of the West could see average or below average seasons. Then El Niño set in. Some parts of the region also saw an above average monsoon and remnants of Hurricane Hilary brought massive rainfall to some areas, according to Basil Newmerzhycky, lead meteorologist at the Great Basin Coordination Center in Salt Lake City.

“All the way through winter, spring and all the way through summer, we really did not get any prolonged drying periods to get our fuels to be critical over a widespread area,” he said.

But Newmerzhycky cautioned that a light, wet fire season can be a “double-edged sword.”

“It provides relief for that immediate time period, but it also grows fine fuels in the lower and middle elevations,” he said. “The grasses, the sagebrush multiply in terms of coverage and depth and tons per acre. And then when you finally get that regular dry summer – and it doesn't even have to be abnormally dry – you have an overabundance of fuels that then provide for an above normal fire season.”

He noted that some of the heavier fire seasons in recent years came on the heels of “two or three seasons of cooler, wetter conditions.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.
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