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Wildfire Risk Blazing Across Western U.S.

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Wildfire Risk Blazing Across Western U.S.

It's been a fairly busy wildfire season in the western U.S. this year, but it hasn't been nearly as destructive as in 2018. However, some meteorologists and wildlife officials aren't ruling out the chance that this season could get much worse, as reported by FreightWaves last week. Crews in several parts of the Desert Southwest and Great Basin have been busy trying to contain some large fires, and conditions are prime for these fires to possibly get worse and then out of control.

SONAR Critical Events: Woodbury Fire outside of Phoenix, Arizona on June 25, 2019.

This year's fires haven't received much coverage in the national news, but at least one is noteworthy because of its proximity to a large city. The Woodbury Fire – as seen below in FreightWaves' SONAR – began on June 8, about 60 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona in the Superstition Wilderness. It's still burning, and as of today, June 25, it covers nearly 116,000 acres, having increased in size by 80 percent in the past four days. It's 48 percent contained, according to InciWeb, and the exact cause hasn't been determined.

Timing and length of typical wildfire seasons differ from state to state, and even from region to region within a state. Mark O'Malley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Phoenix, told FreightWaves that this is the peak of wildfire season in southern Arizona. It typically starts around Memorial Day and lasts through July 4. This season hasn't been as destructive as last year's, but O'Malley said there's one significant difference.

"The winter was wet, leading to a lot of overgrowth in the lower elevations," explained O'Malley. "So, fires are burning in areas around 2,000 to 4,000 feet up, while the higher elevations [near Flagstaff] aren't burning yet." This is the reverse of what happened in 2018.

With the Woodbury fire not far from Phoenix, there's a concern due to the urban-wildlife interface often found near metropolitan areas. But the Woodbury Fire, as well as several smaller fires in Arizona, are also endangering many tucked-away low population communities. O'Malley believes this fire season "may end later than normal" because there's no rain in sight for the next couple of weeks.

SONAR Critical Events: High-risk wildfire regions (circled in red) as of June 25, 2019.

So far this year, more than 1,5000 wildfires have scorched more than 12,500 acres of land in California. These are only the fires to which the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) responded. Including fires worked by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the totals are 1,815 and 16,719, respectively.

Earlier this June, fires were easily sparked during a triple-digit heat wave. The Sand Fire in Yolo County, California started on June 8 and lasted a week, burning around 2,500 acres.

In anticipation of the Golden State's peak wildfire season in the months to come, CalFire, under an executive order from California Governor Gavin Newsom, released a report in February identifying 35 top-priority projects to thin vegetation in and around more than 200 vulnerable communities. CalFire is now working with local communities to carry out the projects and has asked the state's National Guard to help execute them.

One of the most recent fires was the Doe Canyon Fire in southwestern Colorado. It was discovered on the afternoon of June 20, caused by a lightning strike on June 18 about 10 miles southeast of Dove Creek. This area is lush with vegetation, and the fire has increased from 1.5 acres on the day it was discovered to 215 acres today. Crews are monitoring the fire and taking steps to keep it within an area that will not threaten ongoing timber sales and other areas. Some forest roads are closed due to the Doe Fire, and smoke may be visible from both it and nearby prescribed fires.

As fires burn in many other western states, dry and breezy conditions are forecast for the rest of this week. This increases the chances for fires to spread rapidly and for new ones to spark. In response to the threat, the NWS has issued Red Flag Warnings and Fire Weather Watches across the region and offers these tips for wildfire weather safety.

Image Sourced From Pixabay

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