Wildfires can uproot lives and destroy entire forests, and in recent years iconic landmarks have been at risk from flames amid costly and devastating fire seasons. Atmospheric rivers have significantly improved the drought across parts of the West, but will that be enough to prevent another destructive fire year? AccuWeather forecasters have released their annual wildfire prediction for the United States, weighing in on that question and many others.
AccuWeather’s team of long-range forecasters, led by veteran meteorologist Paul Pastelok, says that the 2023 fire season is forecast to be near to slightly above the historical averages. There will likely be 60,000 to 75,000 wildfires that burn 6.5 million to 8.25 million acres of land, close to the average of 68,707 fires and 7,000,514 acres annually between 2001 and 2020.
However, this is only half of the story.
“A fire season is more defined on the impact to the public and not by the acreage burned,” Pastelok explained. There is no better example of this sentiment than the 2018 wildfire season when the Camp Fire raged in California. The blaze scorched 153,336 acres and burned the city of Paradise, California, to the ground, killing 85 people to become the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in 100 years. It also destroyed more than 18,000 structures and forced 52,000 people from their homes.
In 2022, over 7.5 million acres of land burned across the country, the 11th-most on record. For California in particular, the number of acres burned was down when compared to previous years, in part due to some rain in late summer and early fall and infrequent wind events. Additionally, as COVID restrictions were lifted in 2022, fewer people traveled to the secluded mountains, which may have contributed to fewer fires started in the wilderness.
Forecasting wildfire activity can be challenging for meteorologists, but not because of the weather.
“Predicting wildfire numbers and acreage is very difficult, due to the fact that nearly 90% of fires are caused by humans,” Pastelok explained. “Fires started by people are nearly impossible to predict.”
From the mountainsides of the Rockies to the forests of Alaska, here is AccuWeather’s 2023 U.S. wildfire forecast:
All eyes are on California following a prolific winter of storms loaded with rain and snow. A barrage of bomb cyclones and atmospheric rivers resulted in one of the deepest snowpacks in state history, which will delay the onset of wildfire season, but AccuWeather warns that it will not prevent fires from starting.
Pastelok said that the recent precipitation will lead to “intense growth” during the spring and first part of the summer, resulting in more fuel for fires that ignite later in the summer and into autumn.
The winter storms also blew down an abundance of branches, limbs and entire trees, which will add to the availability of fuels across the California landscape.
“Between April and June across California, the wildfire threat statewide is expected to be very low,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said. The fire threat will gradually rise as the summer progresses as fuels dry out amid prolonged stretches of warm and dry conditions.
Peak wildfire season is predicted to occur from August into September in Northern California and September to November in Central and Southern California.
It is during these time frames that the ingredients for destructive fires will culminate. Lightning from the North American monsoon can be a natural ignition source for fires, while winds, such as the Santa Ana winds, which were absent for most of the 2022 season, can fan the flames of ongoing blazes and cause them to evolve rapidly into massive wildfires.
The peak of the wildfire season will align with the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season.
The same wintertime weather pattern that sent storms into California also delivered significant rain and mountain snow across Nevada and the Four Corner states. The influx of moisture will hold back fire development throughout the spring, but the risk will gradually increase throughout the summer and into the fall.
However, the entirety of the West did not benefit from the drought-busting winter storms.
The interior Northwest and the northern Rockies face a high risk of wildfires this year following a winter that was drier than the historical average. The region includes portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Northern California and northern Nevada.
Significant fires could break out as early as June or the first half of July. Still, this region’s peak of wildfire activity is not anticipated until late July into early September.
“Dry periods can lead to some very warm to hot periods as well, increasing evaporation rates, and fuels dry out setting up favorable fire conditions,” Pastelok said.
Significant fires devastated towns across the Pacific Northwest in recent years, particularly in 2020 when the Almeda Fire destroyed 2,357 residential structures in southern Oregon.
Outside of the western U.S., Alaska leads the country in wildfire activity, with 3.08 million acres burned in 2022, nearly twice the amount of land in Delaware.
“The wildfire-burned acreage in Alaska can be less than 2022, but numbers will still be rather high,” Pastelok said about the Alaska fire season.
Most of the fires were in areas away from major towns and cities, but they sent massive plumes of smoke into the atmosphere that plagued the sky over North America.
AccuWeather meteorologists say there is also an elevated brush fire risk in Florida, especially through late spring.
“[The] Florida Peninsula is running drier-than-historical averages in 2023,” Pastelok explained. “These conditions can lead to brush fires this spring.”
The fire threat will likely end early in the summer as thunderstorm activity increases and there is perhaps even an early-season tropical system that soaks the Sunshine State with rain.
Wildfires can have a far-reaching effect on areas thousands of miles away from the flames.
Smoke from fires in Alaska, British Columbia and the western U.S. can send massive plumes of smoke into the atmosphere. Millions of people across the East Coast could see a hazy sky, an uptick in air pollution, and, in extreme cases, the smell of smoke.
On Sept. 15, 2020, a satellite image revealed a historic wildfire season colliding with a hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season.
Intense fires burning across the West Coast states sent monumental plumes of smoke into the atmosphere, which gradually spread across the country. A smoky sky was observed over major metropolitan areas, including Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Meanwhile, Hurricane Sally slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 2 hurricane.
That same month, smoke from fires in California and Oregon was detected as far away as Europe.
Produced in association with AccuWeather