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Wildfires in All Seasons?

Posted by Deb Schweizer, USDA Forest Service, Fire Aviation and Management in Forestry
Jul 29, 2021
The Thomas Fire
The Thomas Fire, which started on private lands and burned onto the Los Padres National Forest, burned throughout December in 2017. Photo courtesy Kari Greer

In recent decades the number, severity and overall size of wildfires has increased across much of the U.S. In fact, the 2018 wildfire season in California recorded the largest fire in acres burned, most destructive fire in property loss and deadliest fires in the state’s history.

But for many USDA Forest Service employees, fire season is something they remember from the start of their careers, when they quickly learned there were five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and fire season. However, wildfire is year-round for much of the United States and the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.

Wildfire season has become longer based on conditions that allow fires to start and to burn—winter snows are melting earlier and rain is coming later in the fall. What was once a four-month fire season now lasts six to eight months. For example, fires in recent years have burned well outside of the typical fire season throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and New Jersey. Fires in the winter months are becoming part of the norm.

Other factors contributing to longer fire seasons include extended drought, tree mortality from pine beetles and invasive species such as cheat grass that allow fire to ignite easily and spread rapidly. Added to all this were policies that encouraged aggressive fire suppression for more than a century. These policies had the effect of allowing fuels to accumulate, leading fires to grow in size and intensity.

All these conditions are making wildfires harder to control and allowing forests to hold fire longer. For years, agencies relied on seasonal firefighters for summer months, but now that wildfires are burning into the winter, they need to reevaluate their hiring plans. Wildland firefighting agencies also need to evaluate the way they conduct training for year-round fire, as well as how to handle the inevitable workforce fatigue.

Forest Service crews plan for wildfire year-round. They know that it isn’t a matter of if there will be a fire, but when. They proactively pursue fuel reduction treatments like mechanical thinning and prescribed fires. When conditions are favorable, options such as these reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Even in a year like this, which has been unusually wet and cool, fire managers see opportunities to prepare for wildfires. The Forest Service is committed to an all-lands response and works with state and local agencies in mutual aid and to reduce risk.

Residents who live in fire-prone areas must also plan and live in fire adapted communities. Defensible space, structure hardening and family plans for a possible evacuation, including pets, should be part of living in the wildland-urban interface. Nearly 90% of wildfires are human-caused, so preventing wildfire is important.

Now that we must plan for a fire year, we all have roles to play. What are you doing to help?

A prescribed fire
Prescribed fires are conducted in specific areas under desired conditions to reduce hazardous fuels build-up and restore the natural role of fire on the landscape. USDA Forest Service photo
Category/Topic: Forestry

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Ed Dunn
Jun 29, 2019

We are all aware that we have a crisis! Wildfires! Most fires start as meager fires, and are ALLOWED to blossom into Wild Fires!
Wild fires aren't born, but are allowed to evolve into WILDFIRES! We need to hit every new fire with all the Ariel water bombardment, that we have and, NOT allow that small conflagration to BECOME a WildFire! Every small fire, that has been dealt with, that way, has NOT evolved into a major conflagration! No homes need to burn, and most should NOT been threatened. But I hate to say that we have NOT been using our resources!
Everyone is talking about evacuations, thinning the forests, etc! How about talking and planning on meeting the crisis head on?? You Know it is coming! Make ALL equipment immediately available, and STOP WILDFIRES, Before they become WILD Fires! What a Novel Idea! Let's adopt IT! There are "all weather" aircraft, that can fight fires, day or night, or wind, or smoke, so NO excuse! Use Them!
If I had more space, I could provide more cures!

Jul 03, 2019

Wildfire season in Tennessee is Oct. 15 thru May 15. It always has been. So figuring our fire season into the equation and to say that there has been an evolution of a "Fire Year" is somewhat dishonest. Summer fires are a rarity in Tennessee. So one could subtract those months and maybe say that the "Fire Season is getting shorter.

My train of thought may not be lucid but let's use the data to come to real conclusions and not manipulate the facts to drive an agenda.

We all know that fuel mitigation is the answer.

Michael Wilkins
Jul 05, 2019

As fire fighter of 44 years I think it is inaccurate to imply that the wildfire season is year round for much of the US. For the vast majority of the country there are still very distinct fire seasons. Yes parts of the country will have drought cycles which extend the season in specific years but they are in different places at different times. Western NC had extreme drought and fires in the fall of 2016 but if we only looked at 2018 and 2019 we would think that fire season in western NC and in the Appalachian Mts is becoming drastically shorter and shorter. However, when we look back in time we realize we have seen this cycle before.