The same infernos that engulfed Wyoming and the West in 2012 were expected for 2013. Governments planned and firefighters prepared for what they feared could be a repeat of the worst fire season on record.
And then it wasn’t.
April snows blanketed portions of the state and June and July rains soaked others. Fires cropped up in surrounding states, but none tore through Wyoming the way they did the year before.
In dollars, Wyoming’s 2012 fire season cost the state almost $43 million. The 2013 one finished at $1.5 million – that’s right, $1.5 million.
Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser is tired of predicting the future. Whether fire season in 2014 will be severe or mild depends on many unknowns, including thunderstorms, dry lightning, how fast temperatures increase and when and how much moisture falls. Recent years seem to contradict historic averages, making unpredictability the only sure prediction.
Fire seasons in the West used to follow typical patterns. Grass fires would pop up in the Northern Rockies in early spring, then grasses would green and fires would start in late spring in New Mexico and Arizona, moving to Colorado and Wyoming and up through Montana, Crapser said.
It made sharing regional resources fairly easy. Crews could move from one state to another following the fire seasons and federal and state land managers knew they could have help when needed.
That was before the climate started fluctuating.
Fires started early this year in Colorado and New Mexico but then rain came down the rest of the summer. California is still burning from a December hot and dry spell.
The fires in 2012 were due in part to prolonged drought, Kelly Redmond told the Star-Tribune in 2012. Redmond is the deputy director and regional climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center, which is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The 10-year average from 2002 to 2012 was drier than even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Less moisture was coupled with warmer overnight temperatures in the summer, stronger winds and lower humidity, he said.
At the end of 2012, forecasters looked at a state with below moisture precipitation and a grim outlook for the rest of the winter. Even into January and February of 2013, temperatures were a little higher than normal and precipitation down, said Chris Jones, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Riverton.
But then in April, storms dropped inches of precipitation on chunks of the state.
“April could have easily made a two month dent just in terms of delaying the fire season,” he said. “We got moisture on the ground and moisture in the mountains helping with reservoir storage.”
Current predictions call for cooler-than-normal months into March and more than average precipitation into January. Right now, it looks like it could be an average fire season in July and August, he said.
But many factors such as dry lightning contribute to the number and severity of fires and are harder to predict, Crapser said.
The huge fluctuations make it even harder to plan for with regional resources and costs, Crapser said. It’s tougher to send Wyoming crews to Arizona, for example, when blazes have started earlier and burned stronger at home.
On a positive note, unless Wyoming’s 2014 fire season turns out like the one in 2012, the state should have enough fire suppression money in its coffers, Crapser said.
He agrees with governors from western states when they met recently to discuss working better together to share resources on suppression but also prevention.
“It seems like every year gives us a new challenge as far as what we’re looking at,” Crapser said. “If you try and come up with a 10-year average and your average is in extremes, it makes it hard to predict what’s happening year by year.”