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As moisture dampens the summer wildfire outlook, it's also growing more fuel

Flick/NPS Climate Change Response

The most recent federal forecast suggests that much of the West can expect normal or even below normal wildfire activity through August. However, there are some exceptions.

Historic snowfall and above average precipitation are key factors in what could be a substantially delayed and relatively calm fire season. But that very same moisture could spell more intense wildfires in parts of southwest Idaho and northwest Nevada.

“The problem for the lower elevations – and this includes a lot of southern Idaho – is that it also leads to a greater grass and brush crop,” said Basil Newmerzhycky, predictive services lead meteorologist at the Great Basin Coordination Center in Salt Lake City. “So even though we would not expect it to start burning right away, it's a greater concern as we get into the latter half of summer.”

The National Interagency Fire Center's latest four-month outlook noted that the area of possible above-normal wildfire “may be expanded farther south and east depending on the summer weather pattern, and this will continue to be monitored.”

“(Y)ears coming out of drought tend to lead to an increase of fires and acres burned in the lower elevations of Nevada and western Utah, especially when a very wet year follows an average or a wet winter the year before,” it continued. “The fall and winter of 2021-2022 had a wet October and December resulting in normal precipitation across much of the northern two-thirds of the Great Basin that winter.”

Newmerzhycky also said that not all parts of the region saw the same record-shattering snowfall that hit ranges like Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and the Sierras along the California-Nevada border, so there's still likely to be significant wildfire risk at higher elevations across much of the West come late summer.

So far this season, the number of acres burned across the U.S. stands at 55% of the 10-year average, and the number of incidents is at 83%, as of May 1.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Murphy Woodhouse