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Wildfire Season In West On The Verge Of Explosive Development

Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St
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As Canada’s wildfire season continues at a record-setting pace, it’s been a much different story in the western United States through the spring and early summer. However, AccuWeather meteorologists warn it could be the calm before the storm as a significant shift in the weather pattern unfolds during the second half of July.

Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, on Sunday, July 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The unusually quiet start to the wildfire season across the western U.S. can be traced back to the onslaught of winter storms. A barrage of atmospheric rivers from late December through March washed away short-term drought concerns and unloaded hundreds of inches of snow across the mountains. Much of that snow is still melting away.

The epic amounts of rain and snow over the winter helped to create an abundance of lush vegetation and delay the onset of wildfire season, but AccuWeather meteorologists say the fire risk will increase in the coming days and weeks.

Record-challenging heat has made several appearances across Texas since the start of meteorological summer on June 1, but the latest heat dome is expected to expand to encompass most of the Southwest.

Over 95 million people were under excessive heat warnings or heat advisories from Florida to California, as of Friday morning, with temperatures likely to make a run at all-time levels in some cities in the West.

“The dome of high pressure strengthening from Southern California to western Texas will help to prime the western U.S. for [an] increased wildfire threat in the coming weeks,” said AccuWeather Meteorologist Brandon Buckingham.

The hot, sunny weather will dry out fuels, setting the stage for fires to ignite. The highest wildfire threat through Sunday is expected across Arizona and New Mexico, but blazes could also break out in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Texas.

As of Thursday, around 735,000 acres had burned across the U.S. so far in 2023, only 27% of the historical average of 2.6 million acres through July 13, and the slowest start to the season since 2014. It is a stark contrast to 2022 when over 4.8 million acres had burned across the U.S. through July 13.

“Compared to the historical average over the last 10 years, the wildfire situation across the western U.S. is more representative of what we would typically see in mid- to late May, rather than mid-July,” said Buckingham.

There is still plenty of time left in the budding wildfire season, and the fire risk is predicted to escalate during the third week of July. Additionally, the apex of wildfire activity across the western U.S. is not likely to peak until August or September, but larger infernos could continue to burn into autumn.

July is also the time of year when the annual North American monsoon often ramps up, but as AccuWeather meteorologists predicted in their U.S. summer forecast back in early May, the onset of the summer storms has been weeks behind the historical average.

The monsoon is an annual event when a shift in wind direction in the atmosphere sends moisture over the Southwest, resulting in rain and thunderstorms. Monsoon season begins on June 15 and ends on Sept. 30, but the thunderstorm activity varies from year to year.

The absence of moisture from the monsoon so far this year is another factor that will boost the fire potential.

Some thunderstorms could rumble over the region through the weekend, but they could do more harm than good.

“Any thunderstorm that develops is unlikely to produce much rainfall and instead could produce lightning that has the potential to spark a wildfire in the increasingly dry ground,” said Buckingham. Meteorologists call this phenomenon dry lightning.

Lightning is the second-most common ignition source of wildfires after humans and can spark new blazes in remote areas, making them hard to contain and extinguish.

Lightning strikes the Antelope Valley near Pearblossom, Calif., Thursday, July 15, 2010. (AP Photo Mike Meadows)

As the fire threat expands across the West, temporary relief is on the way for western Canada where intense fires have ignited.

“A storm is expected to impact parts of British Columbia and Alberta as well as the northwestern U.S. Monday into Tuesday,” said Buckingham. “While the rainfall could be beneficial, gusty winds could also be a concern.”

It has been a historic year for wildfires in Canada, with the impacts being felt thousands of miles away in the form of unhealthy air quality, and the wildfire season will only get worse as the summer progresses.

As of Friday, over 27.8 million acres (43,537 square miles) have burned across Canada, more than 1,200% of the historical average through July 13. This area is larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

Before this year, 1995 held the record for the most acres burned across Canada, when fires scorched 17,559,303 acres.

Buckingham added that nearly 3.4 million acres burned on Thursday alone, and to make matters worse, a new cluster of wildfires has erupted.

“The situation in Western Canada continues to get more dire, with another three dozen wildfires being sparked on Wednesday alone in British Columbia,” said Buckingham about the smoke from the new infernos has already filled the sky over British Columbia.

With more fires breaking out, AccuWeather meteorologists say that it is not out of the question that over 40 million acres could burn across Canada by the end of 2023.

A satellite image of wildfire smoke over Canada and the northern United States on Friday, July 14, 2023. (NOAA/GOES)

Forecasters say the wind will blow the smoke southeastward into the United States throughout the weekend, obscuring the sky over the north-central and midwestern U.S.

Air quality could also reach unhealthy levels for millions of people if the smoke lingers in the lower part of the atmosphere. People in the Midwest are encouraged to check the air quality before spending extended periods outdoors.

Produced in association with AccuWeather

Edited by and Joseph Hammond

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