Most of the West can expect a nearly normal fire season after five years of drought-fueled infernos, but there is still a "great potential" for fire in the parched Southwest, officials say.
"We're not in bad shape right now," Steve Brown, staff meteorologist at the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said Monday. "I don't think we're going to see much until we get into the actual summer."Increased precipitation has relieved drought conditions in many areas, including parts of the Rockies that were ravaged by fire last year, Brown said. But uncertain prospects for more wet weather in coming months still cloud the fire outlook, he said.
But improved precipitation could heighten the danger of range fires in many areas by promoting the growth of grass that could serve as fuel later, Brown said.
Brown, who is responsible for outdoor fire danger forecasts nationwide, said he was compiling data for a report due to be released late this week.
The biggest danger area is the Southwest. Much lower-than-normal winter snowfall and spring rains pose a fire threat in Arizona and New Mexico and southern parts of California, Utah, Nevada and Colorado.
"There's not much question . . . (of) a great potential right now" for wildfires in those areas, Brown said. "The fuels are already drying out."
Soil and debris on the forest floor in parts of northern Arizona are as dry now as they were in August, he said.
The next greatest fire potential is in the intermountain region _ northern portions of Utah and Nevada, southern Idaho and parts of eastern Oregon and Washington _ where the snowpack is melting rapidly and the long-range forecast calls for warm temperatures, Brown said.
Despite four small forest fires during a warm, windy spell last weekend in Washington, the outlook for the Pacific Northwest, Northern California Northwest and the northern Rockies is near normal, Brown said.
The Rockies, including fire-ravaged Yellowstone National Park, "have gotten their fair share of precipitation," leading to "quite a decrease in the drought conditions that existed earlier," Brown said.
The situation could deteriorate, however, as high pressure and relatively dry weather is likely.