Fire experts say this year's drought, low snowpack and record-high temperatures in much of the West portend a dangerous installment of what has become a year-round wildfire threat.
Wildfires burned more than 1,500 square miles in Arizona last year and have already torched about 12 square miles this year. Most were caused by people, and fire officials hope the public has learned some lessons from the Wallow Fire, the worst in state history. Campfire embers ignited a blaze that forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate their homes.
New Mexico, too, experienced its two biggest-ever wildfires in 2011, consuming 245 and 160 square miles, respectively.
"We are approaching this as a season where we still have very high fire danger and there are millions of acres around New Mexico that could burn," said Dan Ware, a New Mexico State Forestry Division spokesman.
January and February were the driest on record in California, where the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has battled 679 fires in its jurisdiction — about a third of the state — since Jan. 1, compared to 210 over the same period last year. Fire threats are expected to be above normal in the mountains, the central coast and inland areas such as San Bernardino County, said department spokesman Daniel Berlant.
Nearly all of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have drought conditions that should persist at least through June, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
For much of the West, snowfall this winter was disappointing. Snowpack in Colorado and Utah is only half of average and diminishing fast. Salt Lake City reported its fourth-driest March ever; Denver had a trace of precipitation in what traditionally is the snowiest month of the year.
"Things are heating up and drying out," said Jason Curry of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands in Utah, where fire officials monitor parched high grasses left over from bountiful 2011 precipitation. "We've got our eyes on the hills."
In many areas, grass, brush, timber and other wildfire fuels didn't get a winter soaking that allows them to retain water. California had a few storms in March, but "when you miss three or four months without any rain, it just becomes too late," Berlant said.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, expects to issue its comprehensive regional outlook May 1. Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst with Predictive Services, an interagency group affiliated with the center, said many states are still transitioning to spring and that green-up — the growth of grasses and plants that provide initial fuel for forest and rangeland fires — is in the early stages.
"One of the major factors for the fire season is how precipitation patterns develop through the spring," Sullen said. "So even if we're seeing warmer temperatures in many states across the West, it's all really variable at this point."
Idaho is one state that expects a mild wildfire season — at least for now. Its mountain ranges are at normal snowpack levels, reservoir managers are dumping water to make room for snowmelt, and the first weeks of spring have brought more snow and rain, even to the desert-like climate of southern Idaho.