Weather – a key ingredient to a never-ending “fire season”

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With just a flicker of a match, a cigarette butt, or a lightning strike in the high country, fire takes its toll fast and with no regard for those in its path.

These statistics, from last year alone, show how wildfires have a significant impact across the country:

  • 11 firefighters lost their lives
  • 67,774 wildfires burned 9.3 million acres -  that’s the second highest amount of acres burned over the last 10 years
  • 4,244 structures were destroyed, including 2,216 residences - well above the “average” year

As weather becomes more extreme across the nation, so does the threat of fire.

Fire seasons are becoming longer and fires are growing larger. Weather is the lifeblood of wildland fires. A wind driven fire in dry conditions won’t respect roads, fences, or blocks of homes; it will consume anything combustible that lies in its path. The start and spread of fires is created by the fire triangle—the right combination of fuel, weather, and topography. Give it an ignition source and this combination can be deadly and the results catastrophic.

San Diego, Calif., October 25, 2007 -- Helicopters drop water and retardant on the Harris fire, near the Mexican border, to stop the wildfire from advancing. Currently the fires in Southern California have burned nearly 350,000 acres.

CAPTION: San Diego, Calif., October 25, 2007 -- Helicopters drop water and retardant on the Harris fire, near the Mexican border, to stop the wildfire from advancing.  Andrea Booher/FEMA

Fire seasons are forecasted based on general weather patterns, moisture in the vegetation and known topography but the threat can change from moderate to extreme in a couple of days.  It can be a year round problem, depending on the location, vegetation and weather.  Fires can’t always be predicted or forecasted like an approaching hurricane; rather, they can be like a tornado, tsunami or flash flood, leaving those in its path with at times just minutes to make life or death decisions.

And believe it or not, fires can also create their own weather.  During extreme fires, thousands of embers can be fanned miles in front of the main fire, starting new fires that further push the forward spread while also adding to the fire’s intensity.  It only takes one ember caught in dry nook to start your home on fire which can lead to more home ignitions and a fast-moving fire.  If you are trapped between these embers and the main fire, it can be a race to the safety zone or to take escape routes to get out. 

 Malibu, Calif., October 23, 1996 -- A California Department of Forestry (CDF) official watches the wildfire as it burns up a hillside.

CAPTION: Malibu, Calif., October 23, 1996 -- A California Department of Forestry official watches a wildfire as it burns up a hillside. FEMA News Photo

This year’s threat of wildfires

The omens for this year’s fire season point to another year of drought and flame in the Southwest, Central Plains, and Rocky Mountains. From the high amount of fire activity in the past several years alone, it is clear wildfire is almost a nationwide threat.   The season begins in Hawaii with continued drought and in Florida, where the Florida Forest Service is predicting a near-normal fire season after a see-saw pattern of warm and cool, wet and dry weather - unless “an unforeseen wet or dry spell emerge.”

In the Southwest, numerous Red Flag Warnings for incendiary conditions were issued as early as February, in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. The National Weather Service publishes Red Flag Warnings when there are dangerously low levels of humidity, high winds, and dry or drought conditions. A long-term drought continues to extend from the southern Dakotas down through the central plains to the Southwestern states, which were hit hard by fire last year.

This year, the Front Range in Colorado, where the North Fork Fire burned last year, is again a national hotspot. Snowpack in the Front Range basins this year are only ninety percent of last year, according to Chris Cuoco, a senior forecaster for the National Weather Service based in Grand Junction, CO.

The height of the “fire season” in California occurs in September and October, after the chaparral has experienced months of drying and the Santa Ana winds begin. Last year, northern California had many large fires but southern California was spared a bad season, because the Santa Ana winds did not develop in the fall. This year, moderate to severe drought conditions exist in much of southern California and in portions of northern California.  Even with predictive models for fire threat progression through the United States, a catastrophic fire can still occur in other areas at different times of the year.

West Glenwood, Colo., June 11, 2002 -- The Flathead Hotshot crew set a burn on Horse mountain in the South Canyon drainage to stop fire from consuming more forest land.

CAPTION: West Glenwood, Colo., June 11, 2002 – Smoke rolls up from a fire in the South Canyon. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo

While we can monitor areas with greater fire threat due to drought, the buildup of fuel, and moistures in the different vegetation (trees, shrubs and grasses), it is important to remember that weather is a key ingredient to wildfires.  So if you live in an area prone to fires, remember:

  • Stay alert of local conditions – follow the weather conditions in your community and pay special attention to indicators like low humidity, drought, and high winds, three things that contribute to the risk of fire.
  • Listen to direction of local officials – if the local officials in your area mention a heightened threat of wildfire; listen and take action. 
  • Have a plan in case a wildfire should threaten your home or business – simple things like creating defensible space around your home and making sure you have an evacuation plan can save your home and your life.

We hope everyone stays safe during the fire season this year.  Remember, weather is a key ingredient to fires, but the individuals, families and communities that prepare are better able to survive and recover from fires.  Visit Ready.gov/wildfires for information on staying safe before, during, and after wildfires.

About the authors

Justin Dombrowski, Response Director, FEMA Region IX was a former firefighter who traveled around the country managing wildfires and saw firsthand the loss to homes, property and lives including to firefighters. He wants to ensure people know what to do when a fire strikes and do what they can to reduce the threat at home, in their neighborhood, and for the responders.

John N. Maclean, author and journalist, has written four books and numerous articles about wildland fire over the past two decades. He is a FEMA reservist and a member of the Seeley Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

Last Updated: 
03/04/2013 - 14:51
Posted on Mon, 03/04/2013 - 14:49
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