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US West wildfire season to see continued drought, high temperatures fuel flames: Accuweather


Wildfire season has lengthened to nearly year-round

Southern California major fires have decreased

Dry start to 2022 increasing drought outlook

  • Author
  • Kassia Micek
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  • Richard Rubin
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  • Electric Power Energy Transition

The lack of moisture at the start of the year is setting the stage for the possibility of another intense wildfire season across the Western US this year, an AccuWeather forecaster said during a Feb. 25 United States Energy Association media briefing.

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As climate change has been lengthening the wildfire season leading to more severe fires and damage, it is also having an impact on the shortening of the wet season, said Paul Pastelok, AccuWeather lead long-range forecaster.

"We do feel the drought, with confidence, will be a large area of the West," Pastelok said. "I do think the drought will come on strong given the recent weather. ... That sets up for a moderate, maybe a bad, season. It fuels the fires."

Although drought concerns eased in the fall with more moisture, January and February lacked precipitation adding to the long-term drought that's been plaguing the West.

"We're already in an uptick as far as wildfires go this season," Pastelok said. "The only bright spot I see is maybe another monsoon late in the season that will help out the Southwest."

2022 wildfire season outlook

The number of days in the wildfire season has been increasing to nearly year-round.

"It's incredible how long those seasons are going now," Pastelok said.

The drought means there is plenty of dry vegetation to fuel the fires and high winds further spread wildfires.

Tropical developments in the Pacific Ocean could bring little rain and actually spark wildfires because of lightning, Pastelok said.

The Pacific Northwest has gotten a fair amount of moisture, Pastelok said. Although it backed off in mid-winter, precipitation is picking up now. March is looking snowy and April isn't looking too bad either, Pastelok said but there's no way to know to far beyond that.

"I think it'll get bad later in the season," Pastelok said about the California wildfire season revving up from August through October.

California depends on imported power, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, for roughly 25% of it's load. Hydro-powered generation makes up a vast majority of output in the Pacific Northwest.

The Dalles Dam water supply forecast is currently at 96% of normal for the April-September forecast period, 3 points lower year on year, according to Northwest River Forecast Center data. The water supply forecast year runs Oct. 1-Sept. 30.

The Dalles serves as the barometer for hydro conditions in the region. Less hydro generation in the Pacific Northwest translates to less generation available for exports to neighboring regions.

Not only has climate change lengthened the wildfire season and shortened the wet season, it has also brought a higher number of extreme heat days, which has risen 3.5 degrees in recent years, Pastelok said.

"We continue to increase the temperature and increase the evaporation rate too," Pastelok said. "Timing of precipitation is important to climate change. If we get precipitation in the non-wet season, that's what makes a difference."

Utility response

Utilities have focused on wildfire mitigation plans to decrease the opportunity of equipment causing wildfires, as well as quick detection of and response to wildfires.

"It's always a challenge to decide where to spend your limited dollars in wildfire mitigation," said Ruth Marks, vice president of transmission maintenance at Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which has members in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. "It's not just forested areas and it's not just in the summer. There's a lot to manage and so muchj of it depends on mother nature."

There has been a decrease in fires of the last several years in Southern California, even though weather conditions would favor more wildfires, which is something Accuweather forecasters are watching, Pastelok said.

It comes down to better detection, said Maria Pope, president & CEO of Portland General Electric.

"It's all about the visibility of the system," Pope said. "It's all about managing the system in smaller pieces."