Why This Uear’s Quiet U.S. Wildfire Season could be One of Our Last

Mengshin Lin for The Washington Post
Burned cars and destroyed houses are pictured at Waikuli Terrace Park in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 21.

This year transported the West to summers of the past: Pleasant temperatures and clear air allowed for regular walks and hikes in the sunshine. In this part of North America, at least, choking smoke and the buzz of firefighting aircraft, unnerving hallmarks of so many recent wildfire seasons, largely relented.

The dread and fear of out-of-control fires, on the other hand, remained inescapable, residents and emergency managers said. It was a reminder there is no going back to old norms so long as global temperatures continue to rise.

“We have just had a respite,” said Tonya Graham, mayor of Ashland, Ore. “We have had a little bit of breathing space in this trajectory that is taking us toward higher wildfire and smoke risk and more extreme temperatures.”

In recent months, fires raged over an astonishing, record-setting footprint in Canada, killed nearly 100 people and devastated Maui’s cultural capital, and blanketed the eastern United States with plumes of lung-harming smoke. Nevertheless, the U.S. wildfire season is likely to end as the quietest in decades.

Given recent trends in wildfire statistics, it could be the quietest for decades to come without successful efforts to prevent blazes and reduce risks.

The lull in wildfire activity has offered some communities, weary from decades of increasingly harrowing fire years, a chance to prepare for when flames come roaring back. In places such as Nevada County, Calif., northwest of Lake Tahoe, that meant time and energy to study and clear evacuation routes, take stock of fire-prone buildings, and go after state and federal money up for grabs for wildfire preparations.

“If you get a breather from it being just emergency, emergency, emergency, then you have the ability to plan,” said Alex Keeble-Toll, a senior administrative analyst for the county’s emergency services office.

Why the U.S. wildfire season was so quiet

An unusual abundance of moisture goes back to last winter, when an onslaught of storms dumped rain and – more important – heaps of snow from the Sierra Nevada to the Cascades to the Rockies. Snowpack is a key water source for the West through hot and dry summers.

Record-setting snowpack helped the Great Salt Lake bounce back from record low water levels. In the Colorado River basin, extra snowfall provided some relief from drought, although it was not enough to solve that waterway’s woes. In California, snowpack brought a water miracle, filling reservoirs and irrigation systems and for once allowing farms to add water to aquifers instead of further sapping them.

There were fears that all the moisture might actually trigger an intense fire season in the Golden State if autumn weather dried out all the lush vegetation and it ignited.

But that didn’t happen. For a second year in a row, the acreage torched by wildfires in California was a small fraction of the land burned during the devastating 2018, 2020 and 2021 fire years, and on par with the quieter seasons of the 1990s and early 2000s. For the first time in years, drought is nowhere to be found in the Golden State during what is typically its driest time of year.

This year’s above-normal moisture meant that fires had difficulty spreading. In Colorado, the number of fires was close to average, “but we did not see the large acreage fires that we have experienced in other years,” said Tracy LeClair, a spokeswoman for the state’s wildland fire management office.

Well-timed precipitation also helped prevent fire activity from ramping up, said Jim Wallmann, a meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. Monsoon rains doused fire activity in Montana in early August, and then later that month, Hurricane Hilary drenched Southern California and spread moisture across the West.

In recent years, drought persistently dominated the country west of the Mississippi River, but the maps flipped this year: Measures of soil moisture are among the highest on record across much of the mountain West and Northwest, according to NASA satellite data. Instead, it’s the Mississippi Valley that is the nation’s most parched – and fire-weary – region.

The conditions fueled hundreds of fires across Louisiana, where the Tiger Island Fire became the largest on record for the state. But because fires in the West can grow so much larger than those in the East, Wallmann said, an above-normal wildfire year in the South and Southeast had little bearing on national wildfire statistics.

Changing how wildfires are prevented

In the West, the quiet season was a welcome respite for communities with fresh memories of harrowing blazes. Images of fire-ravaged communities such as Paradise, Calif., where the Camp Fire killed 85 people in 2018, are prompting many communities to confront fire risks in new ways.

“The reality of what we’re living in now is completely different,” said Sandie Hewston, who lives in a steep and densely wooded part of Nevada County, near Grass Valley.

Growing up in the area, Hewston said she remembers the sound of firefighting aircraft passing overhead, flying toward some distant blaze. Now, there is an awareness that the forests that make the region such a peaceful place to live could one day become death traps, she said.

The average fire has been trending larger because the biggest fires are growing, Wallmann said. And studies have shown climate change to be a factor: Because warmer air speeds up evaporation, it can dry out vegetation more quickly.

For decades, a goal to extinguish any fire in the West meant a buildup of undergrowth in forests, which means more fuel for wildfires. Blazes that once stayed below the tree canopy and burned out faster are now overtaking forests.

Without such massive fires this year, the size of the average blaze was on par with the lows of a decade or two ago.

To address the changing risks, Nevada County authorities have been updating fire emergency plans and will study evacuation routes more closely. And they are lining up federal and state money to clear out dense undergrowth in some of the most vulnerable communities, where steep slopes allow fires to spread rapidly and evacuation routes are narrow.

Prescribed burns – a practice of creating intentional, managed fires in an effort to reduce fuels that could feed wildfires – are also an increasingly common tool, although this year’s wet conditions sometimes limited opportunities to conduct them.

But it isn’t being used as widely as some have hoped. California set a goal in 2018 to conduct the burns across 500,000 acres a year, but last year lowered that to 400,000 acres annually by 2025. The state has conducted the burns across about 125,000 acres in recent years – out of more than 30 million acres of forested land.

And during a wildfire lull, authorities have to redouble efforts to maintain awareness that the risks have changed.

“People go back to that place of, ‘Oh, maybe wildfires every year is not the new normal and we can feel a little more safe,’ ” Keeble-Toll said. “We are incredibly mindful that people don’t get complacent about the risk.”

Fires aren’t just for a season

In the West, the late summer and early fall months are traditionally marked “fire season,” when warm conditions and dry weather patterns turned lush landscapes into tinderboxes. In recent decades, those artificial bounds have become increasingly irrelevant – so much so that authorities have changed their outlook on when risks are highest.

“We think of fire years,” rather than just seasons, Wallmann said.

Even for experts, it’s hard to say how effectively prevention measures will slow wildfire growth in the decades to come. Recent research found that prescribed burns have helped to reduce fire risks by about two-thirds in California over the past 15 years. Another recent study, however, found that the conditions needed to safely conduct prescribed burns will become rarer as the climate changes.

How those forces interact, “it’s really hard to predict,” said Xiao Wu, an assistant professor of biostatistics at Columbia University and lead author of the study on prescribed burns in California. The research found that, because the state is conducting burns across a relatively small footprint each year, the strategy will have to be targeted to the most vulnerable areas to be successful.

Other methods of clearing out undergrowth to reduce fire risks are tedious and expensive, and can include work by hand. Those can cost upward of $2,000 per acre, while prescribed burning costs several hundred dollars per acre.

“There really is not enough money, and I don’t think there ever will be, to solve this problem,” said Steve Garcia, a Cal Fire forester in Nevada, Yuba and Placer counties.

Even if there is no clear endpoint to fire season, risks are dwindling for much of the country as lower temperatures set in and winter storms get going.

National Weather Service analyses suggest no risks of significant wildfires in the coming weeks and months across the contiguous states and Alaska – everywhere except Hawaii, that is. There, ongoing drought contributed to the deadly fires in Maui. The potential for major fires was forecast to extend into at least January, although heavy rainfall in recent days may have lessened that risk.