With almost 7 million acres already burned this summer and the end of wildfire season still many weeks away, 2012 is shaping up to be the worst wildfire year on record, federal data show.
Currently, 2006 holds that title, with 9.8 million acres burned. 2007 follows close behind, with 9.3 million acres.
Already, though, the amount of land burned in the first eight months of 2012 has exceeded that of the same period for both those years, and forest officials predict an abnormally long fire season this year due to the summer's severe drought.
Large fires in the Rocky Mountain West ripped through parts of Colorado, Montana and New Mexico earlier this summer, severely damaging the city of Colorado Springs in early July. As the season wears on, forest managers expect to see fire activity shift westward, as it typically does in August and September.
"We've seen high levels of activity this year in the eastern Great Basin area, the northern Rockies, the South and the Southwest," said Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist at the Forest Service. "Typically, we see these [more central] regions getting out of the fire season this time of year and activity picking up in the California region."
Indeed, California and Idaho are the current hot spots for U.S. fire activity. A fire in Northern California has destroyed about 50 homes in a thickly forested region north of Sacramento, and a fire in the Boise National Forest has destroyed 94,700 acres near the town of Featherville, Idaho.
More fires, fewer resources to fight them
With climate change edging temperatures steadily higher, many scientists see a direct correlation between global warming and increased fire extent. According to a recent study published in the journal Ecosphere, 38 percent of the planet will likely see increased fire activity over the next 30 years.
In the United States, that could pose problems for forest officials already struggling with budget cuts amid an uptick in fires.
The current spate of wildfires, coming on the heels of an only slightly less severe fire season in 2011, has left federal forestry budgets stretched thin. Partially due to budgetary constraints, the Forest Service recently suspended its policy of letting smaller, natural fires burn out, citing the high cost of managing such fires (ClimateWire, Aug. 21).
Even given the long-term warming trends projected by climatologists, foresters are hopeful that the natural variability of the fire cycle will persist, creating buffer years when conditions are less ignition-prone and they can continue prescribed-burn restoration efforts.
Jones pointed to the years 2008 to 2010, when, after a spate of increased fire activity, levels dropped to well below the 10-year average.
"Even given long-term trends of climate change ... as well as fiscal constraints for the foreseeable future, there could well be years where we have more leeway for fires with restoration strategies because we don't have both factors occurring at once," she said.
Fires this year have already damaged 1,859 homes.