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While eventful and tragic, 2023 was lightest fire season in a quarter century

FILE - A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Jae C. Hong
FILE - A general view shows the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

With Canada’s historic wildfires, and the tragic inferno in Lahaina, Hawaii, the fact that 2023 was our lightest fire season in a quarter century can be difficult to believe.

Nevertheless, not even 2.7 million acres burned last year, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center’s annual season report.

That’s just over a third of the 10-year average for the preceding decade, and the lowest acreage since 1998. The report points to record snowpacks and heavy rainfall as some factors.

Maureen Kennedy, a professor at the University of Washington - Tacoma who studies the ways climate change and fuel treatments affect wildfire, said that wet years can promote the growth of grasses and other fine fuels, and if followed by dry years, can lead to more fire activity. She also pointed to relatively low snowpacks now seen across much of the West.

“Spring snow is often a good predictor,” she said. “We're still a little bit early yet, but if that continues, that could portend more activity this coming summer.”

But pointing to the Northwest’s record-smashing 2021 heat dome, which “erased” much of the region’s snowpack, she said that extreme weather events made more common by climate change “can kind of disrupt those patterns that we expect.”

Kennedy also suggested that acres burned and the number of fires might not be the most meaningful way to gauge the significance of a wildfire season.

“We always have to think about other ways that we can measure the impact of fire,” she said.

One hundred people died in Lahaina alone, and more than 3,000 residences were destroyed by fire in 2023 nationwide, according to the report.

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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