Prolonged drought conditions across the West have national wildfire experts expecting a busy and early fire season.
According to the latest wildfire report issued by the National Interagency Fire Center, Idaho is slated to experience above-normal wildfire activity in its southwestern and northern regions starting in July.
“Above normal wildland fire potential will persist across the Pacific Coast states and expand into the northern Great Basin and northern Rocky Mountains during the summer months,” the report said.
The report — compiled by national wildfire managers and weather specialists — points to weak El Nino weather patterns in Idaho that will cause intermittent storms and dry spells throughout the summer.
Further adding to the season’s dire predictions is the currently low precipitation in many of Idaho’s basins. Early reports reveal dire conditions in basins that should be protecting fire fuels from flaring into tinderboxes. For example, snowpack levels around Boise are the lowest since 1992. Just north, the Payette River basin is the lowest since 1987 and the third lowest since the 1960s.
Fire officials expect Idaho’s wildfires to be fed by leftover grass and vegetation from last year’s mild season, when only about 295 square miles burned. Wildfires in Idaho’s previous peak seasons burned roughly 1,100 square miles in 2013 and 2,600 square miles a year before.
Significant wildfire activity is expected to start as early as late May in drought-stricken California, western Nevada and southeastern Oregon. Droughts have also continued across Oklahoma and central Texas.
According to the report, even high elevation areas will be susceptible to flaring up because of early grass and vegetation growth.
However, Idaho’s delayed fire activity may be a benefit.
National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said federal firefighting agencies anticipate Alaska to be wrapping up its fire season right as Idaho’s will pick up. This means agencies will have more room to pre-position fire resources in Idaho before the worst fires spark.
“Strategically placing resources is key well before we start experiencing fires,” she said.
Gardetto added that Idaho’s mass sage grouse habitat also serves as another advantage in securing fire resources. Federal officials are currently weighing listing the chicken-sized bird as an endangered species. This has led agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to up efforts to protect habitat from being destroyed — particularly in wildfires — to prevent a potential listing.
So far this year, flames have consumed more than 500 square miles across the country.