Drought, heat trigger pre-wildfire season jitters

Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY9:02p.m. EST January 21, 2013

Scenes from the Fern Lake fire near Estes Park, Colo., on Dec. 2, 2012.(Photo: Sam Noblett/The Coloradoan)

High in Colorado's Rocky Mountains and beneath a foot of snow, a wildfire is still burning.

Sparked by an errant October campfire, the 32-acre Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park has been smoldering in a remote area of the park, feeding off downed timber and weather that made 2012 the nation's hottest year on record.

The unusual winter fire and the conditions that created it have experts across the country bracing for what could be yet another smoke-filled summer. While experts say it is too early to predict how bad 2013 might be, the ongoing drought and rising temperatures are concerns.

"We know we're going to have a fire season. It's just a question of how long and how bad," says Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst for the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

Last year was the warmest on record for the USA, acccording to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., surpassing the previous record set in 1998. The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3 degrees, one full degree above 1998.

Driven in part by last summer's sweltering temperatures, wildfires burned 9.2 million acres nationally in 2012, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, according to the NIFC. Only twice have more than 9 million acres burned in a single year, in 2006 and 2007, since good records began to be kept in 1960.

The wildfire season's length and intensity is driven largely by how much snow and rain falls each winter and spring. Heavy, wet snows tend to delay the season by keeping the ground, grasses and trees wet. Even the weight of snow plays a factor in some fires: Tall grasses that haven't been squashed down like normal carry fires faster and hotter, Sullens says.

The fire agency says there's continued drought across much of the western and central United States, "with severe to exceptional drought conditions spreading from southern California through the Rockies and into the Plains and the mid- and upper-Mississippi Valley. Parts of Georgia and Alabama also had extreme to exceptional drought conditions."

And according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ongoing drought is expected to persist until at least May in a swath of the country from Southern California and Nevada across Utah, Colorado and Wyoming to Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Put another way: It hasn't snowed or rained much and forecasters say it doesn't look likely to get any better.

Experts such as Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, say wildfires will likely get worse in the West as climate change lowers rainfall, raises average temperatures and contributes to insect infestations that's killing millions of trees, leaving forests full of dry timber ready to ignite.

What's interesting, Hayhoe says, is that the number of wildfires breaking out each year has remained relatively constant even as temperatures rose and precipitation declined. What's changed? How quickly they grow.

"We're not seeing more frequent fires. We're seeing bigger fires," she says. "As it's getting hotter and drier, it making harder to control those fires."

To help combat those faster-growing wildfires, the U.S. Forest Service last summer announced plans to lease four new large firefighting helicopters and seven very large firefighting airplanes. In its published strategy for fighting wildfires, the Forest Service said the wildfire season now averages 78 days longer than it did in the mid-1980s.

While winter is gripping most of the country, firefighters are readying their equipment, looking to weather forecasts to help determine how many airplanes, helicopters and people they will need to battle blazes when they break out.

"We spend the winter months assessing our resources and preparing for the summer," says NIFC spokeswoman Robyn Broyles.

Back in Colorado, the Fern Lake Fire continues to smolder beneath a blanket of snow, burning in 800 years worth of accumulated debris in a remote area. Many visitors have a hard time understanding that a wildfire can still be burning in the middle of winter beneath a blanket of snow, says park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.

She says the fire will likely burn through the winter, unless heavy, wet snows arrive. But three weeks into January, the snows have been light and dry.

"It's like spitting on a campfire," Patterson says.