Monday, June 10, 2024

Smoke Ready Week and 2024 Wildfire Outlook

Smoke Ready Week, June 10-14

Since wildfire season will be here soon, now is the perfect time to ensure you and those around you are prepared. Getting #SmokeReady—the focus of this week—means identifying personal health concerns, learning ways to protect your indoor air, and knowing where to find up-to-date information about wildfire smoke.

Over the course of #SmokeReadyWeek, WA Smoke Blog partners will be posting on social media in line with daily themes:

  • Monday, June 10: Learn about smoke
  • Tuesday, June 11: Stay informed about smoke
  • Wednesday, June 12: Smoke and your health
  • Thursday, June 13: Minimize exposure to smoke
  • Friday, June 14: Prevent smoke

Luckily, if you’re reading this, you already know about the WA Smoke Blog: the state’s leading public resource for wildfire smoke information. This site features a map with Air Quality Index (AQI) values from monitors and sensors that measure PM2.5 across the region. In addition to current air quality conditions, the map also shows a smoke forecast for the next five days. When using this tool, please remember to check the forecast regularly, as conditions can change very quickly.

Below the map, there are tabs for the latest smoke information, local smoke outlooks, and external resources. Here, you can find additional sources on monitoring, forecasting, and fires, and details about the health impacts of wildfire smoke. The Department of Health’s wildfire smoke page is an excellent place to go if you have any questions or concerns about keeping yourself safe this summer.

In the days and weeks to come, be sure to familiarize yourself with the resources listed here on the WA Smoke Blog. Preparing early reduces the stress of wildfire season, so please share this information to help others get #SmokeReady!

2024 Wildfire & Smoke Outlook

Wildfire smoke is a risk every year, but the extent to which it affects Washington residents depends on the severity of fire season throughout the Pacific Northwest. The brief overview for the season is that we are expecting a quick start to wildfire season and slightly more active season than normal across Washington and British Columbia. In contrast, the season could be less active than normal across Oregon and California, especially in the first half. With the enhanced local wildfire risk, smoke impacts are possible too, but small-scale details cannot be known in advance and will instead be updated in future blog posts. Continue reading for a more detailed discussion of the factors at play heading into fire season.

Drought & Precipitation: Some Areas of Improvement, Other Areas of Concern

A contributing element to wildfire season is the level of drought across the region. Thinking back to last fall, much of the PNW was experiencing some level of drought. Here in Washington, the central and northern Cascades were particularly impacted, experiencing extreme drought at that time.

Drought map of the western U.S. in late September 2023. Courtesy droughtmonitor.unl.edu.

Since then, normal to above normal precipitation has alleviated drought in some areas, especially in Oregon where drought has essentially been eliminated completely heading into this summer. The situation in Washington is less optimal with most parts of the state remaining drier than normal over the last 5 months, especially the central/northern Cascades and Blue Mountains where precipitation has only been 50-70% of normal since January 1. As a result, these areas maintain moderate drought status heading into the summer. It’s worth noting that abnormal dryness also extends across the border into much of British Columbia.

Percent of average precipitation for the western U.S., January 1 to June 4, 2024. Courtesy the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC).

Drought map of the western U.S. in early June 2024. Courtesy droughtmonitor.unl.edu.

Snowpack

Snowpack is another important factor to consider when determining how early or late in the season that mid-high elevation forests will be available for burning. Above average snowpack will take longer to melt out and can often delay fire concerns until later in the season. With that in mind, there is a relatively lower than normal risk of fire during at least the first half of the season across the mountains of Oregon and California because of their near to above normal snowpack. In Washington however,  snowpack is generally poor heading into summer, especially across the central and northern Cascades where snow water equivalent (SWE) values are generally only 35-80%. As a result, many of Washington’s mid-high elevation forests will be snow-free at some point in June and could make fuels available to burn sooner than normal, especially if dry and warm weather persists for extended periods of time. Communities on the east slopes of the Cascades are a particular concern for this season because precipitation deficits are most significant in these areas. They have not received hardly any of the beneficial precipitation that fell across much of Western Washington in recent weeks.

Snow water equivalent percentage across various watershed sub-basins in WA & OR on June 4, 2024. Courtesy the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Temperature Outlook


Seasonal temperature outlook valid July/August/September 2024. Courtesy the Climate Prediction Center (CPC).

From a temperature perspective, the highest risk for above normal temperatures will be over the desert southwest this summer. But much of the western U.S. is projected to see a warmer than normal July/August/September. Here in Washington, there is a 40-50% chance of above normal temperatures in Western Washington and a 50-60% chance of above normal temperatures in Eastern Washington. This basically means that we’re more likely to see a warm summer than a cold summer, and that’s especially true across eastern Washington. Still, a really hot summer is not guaranteed.

Precipitation Outlook



Seasonal precipitation outlook valid July/August/September 2024. Courtesy the Climate Prediction Center (CPC).

From a precipitation standpoint it’s important to note that summer in the Pacific Northwest is typically dry in a normal year. Fuels will become drier and increasingly available to burn over the summer even if some moisture makes it into the area from time to time. Speaking of which, long-term signals for July/August/September are mixed for how much precipitation will fall across the PNW, with most of Washington in a coin toss for above or below normal precipitation. Putting this into context, we might see some moisture cross the region, occasionally reducing fire danger, but there is no indication that seasonal wildfire risk will be stifled by consistent rain. 

Putting it All Together

In most of Washington and British Columbia, factors such as below average snowpack and likelihood of above normal temperatures suggest a quicker than normal start to fire season and a slightly more active season overall. In contrast, California and Oregon had good water years, likely keeping fire activity around normal or below normal during the first half of the season. 

The second half of the season looks a bit different. By August, warmer than normal temperatures should allow Oregon and California to begin ‘catching up’ in fire activity as heavier fuels finally dry out and become available to burn. Furthermore, lower-mid elevation areas in California have seen increased grass and shrub growth this year from a wet late winter and spring. These fuels will dry out over summer adding fuel loading for potential higher intensity late season fires. With these factors in mind and IF enough ignitions occur, we’re set up to see near to above normal wildfire activity across the west coast during the second half of fire season. It’s also worth noting that a developing La Nina may delay or reduce the late fall and early winter rains in California, potentially extending fire season later into October and November for that region. 

Outlook for significant wildland fire potential, July, August, September (left to right). Courtesy Predictive Services, National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

More to Come

While this outlook frames possibilities for the upcoming fire season, it is not possible at this time to make accurate predictions of wildfire locations, acreage burned, or air quality values. Even if conditions suggest high fire potential, wildfires don’t start without ignition sources (lightning or human-caused) and this can make a big difference in what kind of season we ultimately have. Additionally, short-term weather patterns play a critical role in determining fire spread, fire suppression possibilities, smoke production, and smoke transport across the region. That’s where the smoke blog comes in -- we’re here to provide information about wildfires and smoke every step of the way. Stay tuned for more updates as summer heats up! 

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