An unusually late fire season may bring coal to more than a few Christmases this year. Ongoing drought conditions across much of the West, Midwest and South have left ample fuel for ignition, keeping firefighters on edge and raising alerts in a number of states.
The year appears poised to claim third place in the annals of worst fire seasons on record, following burns totaling 9.8 million acres in 2006 and 9.3 million acres in 2007.
In Colorado, which experienced its most destructive season on record, firefighters are finally getting a handle on the Fern Lake fire, a late-season blaze outside the town of Estes Park.
"It's not uncommon to have wildfires outside of the regular fire season," said Jeremy Sullins, an analyst for predictive services at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), in reference to the Fern Lake fire. "It is an anomaly to have one this severe, where we're actually pushing an instant management team to the site."
Fern Lake caps an inordinately long fire season for the state, which was rocked over the summer by two massive burns: the Waldo Canyon fire outside Colorado Springs and the High Park fire northwest of Fort Collins.
The Fern Lake fire had burned 3,486 acres as of yesterday and prompted evacuations from 583 homes last weekend. Though fire crews are hoping for snow or rain in the coming days, the fire's growth potential remains high. Mitigation efforts have been hindered by wind and the region's rugged terrain.
Little relief across a parched West
While the Fern Lake fire has grabbed headlines, several other states have pushed back fire seasons due to the uncharacteristically dry weather.
After a relatively quiet fire season, Alaska is coping with a handful of late blazes in the Matanuska Valley, north of Anchorage. The ongoing absence of snow and steadily drying grasses mean that firefighters are busier now than they were during the normal fire season, according to local authorities.
The majority of the country's fire activity is currently in the South, according to the NIFC, with the largest fires concentrated in Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and North Carolina. Virginia extended its fire season this week from Dec. 1 to Dec. 10.
Drought conditions persist across more than half the country, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with storms offering some relief to the West but dryness worsening in other regions (Greenwire, Dec. 6).
That lack of precipitation both extends the likelihood of late fires this year and increases the chances of a strong fire season in the future, NIFC's Sullins said.
"The fires we're seeing right now are largely due to precipitation deficits, both short- and long-term, across the U.S.," he added. "A lot of what next year's fire season will look like depends on how snowpack develops over the winter season."
NASA scientists released new data this week indicating that dry conditions will become increasingly common over the next 40 years, particularly in the central and eastern United States(ClimateWire, Dec. 5). A separate report by the research group Climate Central projects steadily increasing fire activity in the West, as well.
With rain, new problems
Ironically, the current lack of precipitation may be holding back some of the fires' effects, even as it prolongs the danger of new blazes.
After a burn -- particularly a high-intensity burn like the High Park fire -- ash and soot are left on the parched landscape. Some of this degrades into the soil, where its nitrogen becomes fertilizer for plants; much, though, remains loose, until rainfall washes it into local streams and eventually into local water reservoirs.
In the streams, it can have widespread effects on local aquatic species, said Randy Hampton, a spokesman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
"It's not just ash -- the destruction of vegetation means you get more erosion clogging up streams and rivers," he said. "It takes time to see sediment out of the system, to get the ecosystems to stabilize."
Following the Hayman fire, which raged outside Denver in 2002, wildlife managers saw high rates of fish mortality for the next three years, he added.
So far, the effects of the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires on local water systems have not been felt in full. "Because we haven't had any big rain events, we've only seen localized mortality," Hampton said. "On its own, the ash doesn't go anywhere -- it just sits there on the hillside."
Apart from fish, other species have bounced back quickly, particularly large animals like bear and elk. That's because the fires burned in a "mosaic" pattern, torching some areas but leaving others untouched -- a consequence of the Rocky Mountains' variable terrain and steep canyons.