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Western Wildfire Season Ends With 85% Fewer Blazes, Less Damage

wildfire containment

One of the slowest wildfire seasons in years has come to an end in the West thanks to well-timed rain and cooler temperatures, bringing a reprieve to a region hit by numerous destructive blazes over the past several years.

The break is giving firefighters an opportunity to focus on prevention efforts such as thinning forests that could lessen damage from wildfires in the future, according to officials.

November rains effectively doused the season in California, where 362,403 acres have burned this year through Monday, compared with 2.6 million over the same period in 2021 and a five-year annual average of 2.2 million, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

A strong monsoon season also kept fire activity below normal in states such as Arizona, where 160,770 acres have burned compared with 524,428 last year, according to the Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency fire group. [emphasis, links added]

In an area that covers Nevada, Utah, and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, 423,345 acres have burned this year, compared with a five-year annual average of 1.2 million, according to the Great Basin Coordination Center, another interagency fire group.

Cooler-than-normal weather in some regions was a big reason for the reduced number of wildfires, according to firefighting officials.

It delayed the start of the fire season in places such as the Pacific Northwest, where mountain snow began melting two months later than expected, said Jim Wallmann, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In addition, rains fell on several blazes at key moments, including the 341,735-acre Hermit Creek-Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, which escaped from a prescribed federal fire last April to become that state’s largest blaze on record.

It destroyed hundreds of homes in the Las Vegas, N.M., area, but firefighters initially feared it was going to do more damage.

In California, remnants of Hurricane Kay provided rare September rains to help corral both the Fairview and Mosquito fires, which were raging at the time.

You can’t discount the part that luck plays,” said Cal Fire Assistant Chief Tim Chavez. “I’d rather be lucky than good, anytime.”

Some parts of the West got more rain than normal, others got less, but state and federal officials say conditions overall were wet enough—especially in the parched Southwest—to help suppress fire activity and improve the region’s continuing drought.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 69% of the West is currently experiencing drought conditions, down from 91% a year ago.
The region is far from emerging from drought entirely, according to Mr. Chavez.

We would need multiple wet winters to recover fully,” he said. That would significantly reduce wildfire risk in the region

Officials said improved response and prevention efforts based on lessons learned from past blazes played an important role.

The Washburn Fire in July threatened the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park, but the trees escaped harm after the blaze slowed to a crawl when it hit areas previously thinned by park crews.

Federal officials have set a goal of thinning work up to 50 million acres of land over the next decade. Respite from fires this year will make it easier for that work to continue.

Washington state had about 35 firefighting aircraft available this year, up from about 15 in 2017. That helped officials keep 90% of the 1,370 wildland blazes to under 10 acres, said Hilary Franz, state commissioner of public lands.

Eight of the 10 biggest wildfires on record in California have taken place over the past decade, according to Cal Fire.

Firefighting costs have soared in tandem, reaching $4.4 billion by federal agencies in fiscal 2021, compared with $1.9 billion in fiscal 2012.

State and federal firefighting officials said their costs likely declined in their most recent fiscal years, though official numbers haven’t been compiled.

Read rest at WSJ

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