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Northwest US wildfire outlook: Fires to ramp up by late summer as drought returns

Despite drought-alleviating El Niño-induced rainfall during winter, a near-average wildfire season is anticipated across the northwestern United States.

The 2015 wildfire season was record-breaking as serious drought and warm conditions kept a tight grip of the region. Over 10 million wildfire acres were burned last year, breaking the previous record of 9.87 million acres set in 2006.

Not only did the Northwest report above-average fire occurrences in 2015 based on an annual 10-year average, the region also experienced above-average acres burned, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center's 2015 wildland fire summary and statistics annual report.

In addition, 52 fires in 2015 exceeded 40,000 acres, 43 more than in 2014.

Beneficial rain this winter and spring has brought hopes for a less severe wildfire season this year.

"Rainfall has been 50 percent or more above normal since Oct. 1, the beginning of the rainfall season," AccuWeather Western Weather Expert Ken Clark said.

"The winter rainfall should be more of a help for the fire season, at least early on. How bad the fire season gets is up to a lot of factors, not all environmental," Clark said.

Clark stated that some of the environmental factors include weather conditions, available fuel (such as mesquite), the terrain since fire burns considerably quicker uphill than downhill and the intensity of any ongoing fires.

"High winds, such as in Santa Ana conditions, can cause power lines to touch and arc or cause them to come down thus starting a fire," Clark said.

Other non-environmental factors include human errors, such as improperly placed, unattended or not fully extinguished campfires, and arson.

Drought is the biggest factor in how significant a wildfire season will become, Nick Yonker, smoke management meteorology manager at the Oregon Department of Forestry, said.

This year, the winter precipitation from El Niño has put a dent in the drought across the region.

"Last year, parts of Washington and Oregon were in a severe drought and southeast Oregon was in an extreme drought," Clark said. "Now most of Washington, except along the Columbia River Basin, is drought-free."

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However, a near-normal fire year is anticipated with possible significant drought conditions returning during the middle and latter part of the summer, resulting in an increase in fires.

"A wet winter followed by a dry summer is almost more problematic than if it was dry all winter because all that moisture allowed for growth [of vegetation]," AccuWeather Meteorologist Evan Duffey said. "Now, if the Northwest goes into a drought, all that has been growing dies and adds to fuel."

Fires can not only ignite easier when there is plenty of dry vegetation but they can also feed on dry vegetation, allowing for rapid spread.

While this season is not expected to be as severe as last season, there is still a set up for a reasonable amount of fire on the ground, Yonkers echoed.

"Going into the dry season with less anticipated precipitation will make it easier for drought conditions to return this summer," Duffey said, adding that summer is typically drier in the Northwest, especially during the month of August.