The 2021 fire season is heating up after a disastrous fire season in 2020. Early this year, ominous indications appeared: a deepening drought and early heatwaves. The Verge consulted with experts in the fields of fire, weather, and climate change to get a sense of what to anticipate throughout the year.
HOW BAD WILL THE FIRE SEASON BE IN 2021?
The stage is set for a very disastrous fire season. According to AccuWeather’s fire season estimate, up to 9.5 million acres might burn this year. This is 140 percent more than the ten-year average. It’s not nearly as bad as last year, when almost 10 million acres were burned. In terms of acres burned, it was the second worst year for fires in the United States since 1960.
According to the current prediction from the National Interagency Fire Center, the potential for “major fire activity” is “above normal” for pretty much the entire West at some time this year. According to Nick Nauslar, a fire meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management, a “major fire” is one that becomes large enough to require assistance from outside the area. Thousands of acres might be burned, and hundreds of thousands of people could be needed to put out the fire.
However, predicting how terrible things will get is still a difficult task, so it’s wise to divide it into two categories that could impact how this fire season plays out: known risk factors and wildcards.
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS, THEN?
Drought is a key risk factor. The most widespread and severe drought in decades has hit the Western United States. Drought affects more than 83 percent of the West, with about half of the region experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Last week, the water level at the US’s largest reservoir, Hoover Dam, reached an all-time low.
Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who makes maps for the US Drought Monitor, says, “This is currently the most exceptional drought that we’ve ever displayed on the map in the Western US.” “When we have droughts like these, the fire season is amplified.”
Plants that have been parched make good fuel for flames. The spring in California was so hot and dry that researchers at San Jose State University were surprised to see no new growth of the Chamise plant, which they follow to assess moisture content in plants, in April. The plants are now drying out faster than usual, with their moisture content on the verge of breaking a new low.
The lower the moisture level of the vegetation, the simpler it is for it to catch fire. “If somebody drops a match or a cigarette, you know, we’re hosed,” says Craig Clements, a professor and head of San Jose State University’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory. Moisture content is directly related to a fire’s spread rate, or how quickly it spreads. Fires can grow significantly larger when the fuel is dangerously dry, according to Clements.
WHERE DO THE WILDCARDS COME FROM?
The weather is the biggest unknown. This year had burned fewer acres than the 10-year average as of June 1st. This is primarily due to the lack of “critical fire weather patterns,” which might include a variety of high temperatures, strong winds, aridity, and lightning. California saw an uncommon combination of lots of lightning and little rain in 2020. This started some of the worst fires in the state, which were fueled by strong winds. That year, California set a new record for the number of acres burned.
We certainly have more potential this year than we did last year if we transported us back to early to mid-June 2020,” Nauslar says. “The potential is there; the question now is whether the weather will cooperate to allow that potential to be realized.”
People’s behaviors are another unknown. Do they go above and beyond? Or are they planning an elaborate baby gender reveal that will cause a ruckus? “As a resident of a high-fire-hazard area myself, and as someone who understands how quickly these fires can spread and put people in danger, I definitely look at this upcoming season and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to be vigilant,” says Crystal Kolden, a former firefighter who is now an assistant professor of fire science at the University of California, Merced’s School of Engineering. “All we have to do now is constantly telling people that if there aren’t any human ignitions, then there aren’t any very major fires.”
HOW HAS THE FIRE SEASON BEEN SO FAR?
This week’s blistering heat and heavy winds have fueled the sixth-largest fire in Arizona’s history. The source of the Telegraph Fire blazing outside of Phoenix has been identified as “human,” although the cause is still being investigated.
According to AccuWeather chief meteorologist Jonathan Porter, most Western states have already had at least one major fire this year. “As a result, the season has gotten ahead of itself, if you will,” he continues.
The bad weather is starting to exacerbate the situation. Hundreds of temperature records were broken this week as a result of a scorching spring heatwave. On June 15th, Salt Lake City, Utah, set a new high temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. That day, the temperature in Billings, Montana, reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, tying the city’s record. Residents of Texas are experiencing power outages as they endure the heat, only months after catastrophic blackouts occurred during a severe cold spell earlier this year.
WHAT IS THE DURATION OF THE FIRE SEASON?
The fire season in the Western United States does not start and end on the same day every year, unlike the Atlantic hurricane season. It’s been suggested that it starts in late spring and lasts until early fall, about May to November.
In different parts of the country, the season peaks at different times. The Southwest usually has the highest fire danger early in the season, followed by places further north and west. Part of it has to do with the vegetation, or fuel, that each location has. Grass dries out faster and burns more quickly. The shrubby chaparral of California takes a little longer to dry out, while the forests take even longer.
According to research, the fire season is lengthening as a result of altering rainfall and snowmelt trends. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the fire season has been extended by 75 days in the Sierras.
“[Fire season] used to be a little more defined,” Nauslar explains. “However, I believe we’ve been talking more about ‘fire year.’”
IS CLIMATE CHANGE AN IMPORTANT FACTOR?
As the earth warms, the “season” is projected to grow longer and more intense. This is because many of the risk variables that cause wildfires are becoming more severe as a result of climate change. Heatwaves are becoming increasingly often and severe. Droughts are turning into megadroughts. Lightning strikes may become more common in the future. By 2060, the quantity of land engulfed in lightning-sparked flames might be 130 percent greater than in 2011.
“Part of me looks at the forthcoming season and thinks to myself, you know, climate change is going to throw us some very terrible curveballs every year,” Kolden adds.