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Wildfire Outlook

Wildfires a worry as drought increases in Southwest, Plains

Dr. Mario Picazo
Meteorologist, PhD

Friday, February 9, 2018, 12:51 - As drought intensifies across the Four Corner states and the southern Plains, so does the risk of wildfires. During much of the winter, the jet stream has driven storms moving in from the Pacific north of the region, keeping precipitation below average and temperatures well above normal values week after week (see video above).

The prolonged drought has been steadily drying out large areas of vegetation from Colorado and New Mexico into Texas and Oklahoma. With low humidity levels and no precipitation, large swaths of vegetation at this point have already been transformed into potential fuel for future wildfires. 

Drought currently covers about 35 percent of the contiguous 48 states, up from 26 percent at the end of January. Much of that rapid expansion happened in the Four Corner states and the southern High Plains, with the higher elevations reporting widespread near-record or record low snowpack.

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Fire potential expect to extend across much of the Southwest by late Spring 

It is not unusual to see fire potential grow during the early part of the year in the southern U.S. As we move into the second week of February, the highest risk of fire extends across the central and southern Great Plains. Kansas, Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico, southeast Colorado, northwest Texas and even areas of southwest California are already on the list of areas that could see drought worsen in the coming months.

Wildfire Potential Map February, below:

Between now and Spring, drought development and expansion will continue to dominate in many areas of the U.S. Forecasts have been persistent in showing a pattern of below normal precipitation across the southern third of the country, something we should expect during La Niña. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) forecasts also indicate that the equatorial Pacific should return from cold to neutral or near-neutral conditions by late Spring. 

But far from the equatorial Pacific, the Four Corner states and the Southern Plains, are expecting drought to persist or even grow. This will also be the case in Southern California, northeast Montana, the eastern Dakotas and in a spottier mode in some sectors of the southeast and east of the Appalachians. 

Drought Forecast Map, below:

As Winter moves along, the big concern, besides the lack of precipitation, is the drying vegetation and how incoming Pacific storms might intensify wind conditions. With the dry tinder and the intense winds, some of the areas in red on the map could be facing significant fires in the coming weeks. 

SEE ALSO: Rocky Mountain Drought Another Problem for Southern California Water Supply
On occasions, all it takes is a passing frontal boundary with little or no precipitation moving east of the Rockies. The gusty winds combined with the downslope orographic features of the area, increase the potential for wildfires to ignite and rapidly propagate especially where vegetation is dry and abundant.

March Wildfire Potential Map, below:

Between March and May, the current areas of high fire potential in the southern Plains are expected to expand westward along the Mexican border into portions of New Mexico, Arizona and southern California. Montana and western portions of the Dakota could also see an increase in fire potential during the Spring months. 

April-May Wildfire Potential Map, below:

Much of what the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has forecasted in terms of wildfire activity for the coming months, is conditioned by the weather expected in those states. Despite La Niña losing punch as Spring nears, we should still expect below normal precipitation across much of the south well into mid Spring.

Precipitation Outlook Map Feb-Mar-Apr, below:

Temperatures are expected to remain on a very positive mode, with well above normal values across most of the areas where wildfire potential is expected to be high and growing. These are certainly not the best news as the 2018 fire season gets underway. 

Year in Review: 2017 California Wildfires. See below.

Thumbnail image: Creative Commons/Wikipedia file photo

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