Wildfires Reign in the West

CNN iReport photo by: Tiffanie Brewer & Chris White

CNN Meteorologist Sarah Dillingham

The High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, CO has consumed nearly 47,000 acres since its June 10 start and claimed its first victim earlier this week, a 62-yr old woman who’s body was found inside her home.  Mandatory evacuations remain in place for many surrounding areas and residents are highly encouraged to leave their homes, given the unpredictable nature of this fire.  Recent weather conditions have aided crews in their battle against the flames as winds have been much weaker than the 50+ mph gusts over the weekend.  Those winds helped the fire to spread from just around 2,000 acres to near 20,000 in a little over 24 hours.  This fire is just one of several that are burning across the West and Southwest, including the Whitewater-Baldy Complex in southwestern New Mexico that has consumed over 280,000 acres and is now at 51% containment.

So, how bad is this season compared to others?  The worst fire season on record for the U.S. was in 2006 when 9,873,745 acres were consumed by wildfires.  Year-to-date, more than 1 million acres have been consumed, which is below the 10-yr average of over 1.5 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.  Given these current numbers and the fact that we still have a long way to go in 2012, we will likely top that average by the end of the year.  The 2011 fire season ended with a staggering 8,711,367 acres being charred across the U.S., making it one of the most devastating wildfire seasons since record keeping began in 1960.  There were more than 74,000 individual fires last year, with the largest and costliest fire being the Wallow fire in Arizona which consumed over 538,000 acres and cost $109 million in estimated damages!  Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were at the top of the 2011 list for numbers of consumed acreage, with more than 2.7 million acres being charred in Texas during their worst drought since the 1930s.  Arizona and New Mexico each lost more than 1 million acres each to their wildfires.

The next few days will be critical to firefighters as they could see winds start to pick up slightly.  Heading into the weekend, there will be a chance of storms returning to the area, which could help or hurt the firefighting efforts.  While thunderstorms bring rain, they also bring wind, and we know wind can have a huge impact on fires, especially underneath thunderstorms that have lighter precipitation.  In any case, crews have made progress in recent days, and they hope to keep up that trend.

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