The worst wildfire year in Nebraska history has been followed by the sharpest drop in fires in at least a decade.
Colder-than-normal weather, less wind and just enough snow cover have worked to suppress fires in the first three months of 2013, said Don Westover, who is head of the wildfire program for the Nebraska Forest Service.
The break has been appreciated, he said, but the long-term outlook continues to call for another bad fire year.
“We are still in a very bad drought,” he said. “We're hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
From January through March of this year, the Nebraska Forest Service received reports of 49 wildfires in the state. That's about 18 percent of the 10-year average of 276.
Soaking rains are forecast across Nebraska this week — just the kind of weather the state needs.
Such rains will green up lawns but they won't do the same for pastures and grasslands in the most fire-prone areas of the state, Westover said.
Western Nebraska and the Sand Hills, where Nebraska's worst fires occur, are home to warm season grasses, and those don't green up until June, he said.
Continued rains through April and May are needed to get those regions into their normal green-up period. And that's just the first step. Then those areas need to get past the blistering heat of mid- to late summer.
Last year more than 400,000 acres, or about 620 square miles, burned in Nebraska.
Nebraska and Iowa are starkly different in terms of wildfire risk for many reasons, ranging from rainfall to roads to terrain. The single-worst outdoor fire in Iowa last year burned less than 1,000 acres, said Gail Kantak, fire supervisor in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Weather consistently plays the biggest role in wildfire outbreaks. For example, the steep drop in fires in 2010 came during a year of heavy snows and flooding rains. The more than 500 fires in the first three months of 2006 came during a horrible year for the state, Westover said.
“That was a bad year. It was the first time we had fires burn into communities,” he said. Fires that year spread into Chadron and Valentine.
And in Nebraska, fire risk changes day to day, based on wind speed, humidity and temperature. Western Nebraska already has seen several days in which the fire danger spiked considerably.
The cooler-than-normal start to 2013 is not expected to last much longer, and a quick switch in temperatures is possible. The April-June outlook issued by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center calls for warmer-than-normal weather across much of the central United States.
Nationwide, 2012 was the third-worst wildfire year on record. Like Nebraska, the rest of the country has seen a sharp drop-off in fires in the first three months of the year.
Also like Nebraska, the National Interagency Fire Center isn't expecting the drop to last.
“It's still relatively early in the fire season,” said Robyn Broyles, spokeswoman for the agency. “This doesn't mean we're not going to see fire season pick up.”
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