Early start to wildfire season

Blazes in California and Utah have officials on alert, but what they spell for the coming season is unclear.


When Jim Stimson first spotted a fire burning 20 miles northwest of Bishop, California, on Feb. 6, he didn’t think much of it. Stimson, a 40-year resident of the area and a local photographer, was leading a workshop in the hills outside of town. He couldn’t remember the last time a fire in February did much damage.

But it didn’t take long for him to realize this wasn’t a typical February fire.

“It became painfully obvious that people were going to lose homes,” Stimson said. “You could hear propane tanks exploding off in the distance. It was just this sickening feeling. You knew that people you knew really well, their lives were changing forever.” 

The Round Fire, as it was named, burned 7,000 acres and 40 homes before local firefighters, aided by a rainstorm, brought it under control.

A resident surveys the damage from the Round Fire, near Bishop, California.

For local residents, it drove home a message Westerners may finally have to get used to: Fire season isn’t just confined to the months of July and August anymore, or even May through September. Over the last four decades, the season across the West has gotten two and a half months longer. Last year, rare January fires swept across southern California. And just last week, the Round Fire wasn't the only abnormally early burn to hit the West. A spate of wildfires broke out in northern Utah Feb. 8 and 9, burning a few hundred acres. 

These early season fires owe much to the ongoing drought. The area burned by the Round Fire is usually covered in snow at this time of year, but Stimson said the ground is bare. California’s paltry snowpack, dry soils and unseasonably warm temperatures make it easier for a spark, whether caused by humans or lightning, to catch and travel faster and farther than usual. While it’s nearly impossible to pin any particular fire event to climate change, we do know that the changing climate exacerbates the drought, which leads to more fires. Scientists say that Westerners can almost certainly expect more early-season fires like the Round, as climate change continues.

Change in length of fire season for U.S. subregions. Orange bars indicate the new, longer fire season. (The Future of Wildlands Fire Management 2008 report from the Brookings Institution.)

The immediate future is harder to predict. The fires in February could be a harbinger of an intense fire season to come or just the premature start to a normal one. If things stay as dry as they have, potential fuels at lower elevations, like grasses, won’t grow as much. If a few good storms roll though and replenish the water supply, those grasses will grow bigger. Without a wet summer, they would then dry out and then potentially fuel bigger fires. At higher elevations, though, this year’s skimpy snowpack, just 25 percent of normal in California, means that the larger fuels like trees are already beginning to dry out. Spring rain may be too late to reverse that trend.

For now, the National Interagency Fire Center, which monitors fire potential across the country, is still predicting a normal spring for the West overall. Their predictions, which go state by state, are too broad to anticipate events like the Round fire or Utah’s fires.

Whatever the off-cycle fires signal about the coming season, they provide a firefighting challenge for fire agencies, which usually operate on skeleton crews during the winter months. When the fires broke out in Utah last week, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, which responds to fires on state and local land, hadn’t yet hired its summer firefighting force. That usually happens by May, not February.

“It's kind of unexpected and definitely earlier than normal,” said Tracy Dunford, deputy director at the agency. So he scraped together a makeshift force of administrators and fire managers who were former firefighters and hadn’t been in the field for a while. They successfully contained the fires within two days.

For now, he said that’s the game plan if other early blazes spring up. He doesn’t expect to significantly change his budget or planning, at least not yet.

“The only real impact is that it heightened our awareness of what could possibly develop,” Dunford said. California fire managers echoed his sentiment, saying that it’s too early to tell whether these fires are part of a larger pattern.

For residents north of Bishop, though, the fire has changed how residents prepare. Stimson says people in the area are thinking about how to better fireproof their homes and prepare for the next big burn. As for Stimson, he’s been putting his valuables and photo albums in a box to keep on hand, in case of an emergency.

When the fire comes, he said, he wants to be ready to “grab and dash.”

The post-fire clean up begins near Bishop, California.

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @kateschimel.

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