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News / Nation & World

Fire seasons starting earlier, ending later

Infernos rage from Texas to Australia; even Canada’s embers still burning under snow

By Brian K. Sullivan, Jessica Nix and David Stringer, Bloomberg News
Published: March 9, 2024, 5:58am

After a year of deadly wildfires around the globe, the world is burning again from Texas to Australia — and in some regions, the blazes are igniting early.

Canada’s Alberta province said last month that wildfire season had already begun, well before the typical March start. On the other side of the planet, South Australia instituted outdoor fire bans in mid-October, weeks ahead of when it normally does.

While late-winter fires aren’t unusual in the Texas Panhandle, the current blaze is the worst in the state’s history. In the rest of Texas, where winter conflagrations are rare, the summer wildfire season is starting earlier and getting longer.

Behind the many culprits of forest and brush fires — from land management to downed power lines — is the shadow of climate change. Global warming is contributing to hot, dry conditions at times of the year that historically were rainier. That’s complicating government efforts to prevent the blazes and intensifying pressure on electric utilities to shore up their systems.

“Climate is connected to fire in many ways — most obviously through extreme weather conditions — but climate also influences ignitions, fuel, moisture and the growth of vegetation,” said Hamish Clarke, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Flare Wildfire Research Group. “In many cases, it’s going to make things much, much worse.”

The fire scorching homes and ranches across the Texas Panhandle started after a dry spell that lasted a few weeks, allowing the grass to dry out. On Feb. 26, high winds swept through the area as temperatures soared. Nearby Amarillo posted a record high of 82 degrees for the date.

“Climate change certainly played a role in the amount of heat and dryness,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and a professor at Texas A&M University.

Across Texas, the weather stayed mostly sunny, dry and breezy this week, said Frank Pereira, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. While not enough to trigger a red flag fire warning, dry and windy conditions can make firefighting more difficult.

Across the Panhandle and the rest of the southern Great Plains, there are two fire seasons: One comes at the end of winter into early spring and the other during the summer months, said Todd Lindley, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.

“We are seeing an increase in our summer fire season,” Lindley said. “Summers have been trending hotter in the last couple of decades, and that has had a corresponding increase in summer fire activity, especially in Texas and Oklahoma.”

El Niño plays a role

This year, El Niño is amplifying the impact of a hotter climate. The weather pattern, a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, usually brings rainier conditions to Texas and the rest of the U.S. South.

But this year, unusually, some storms have tracked north through Colorado, leaving hot, arid air across the Southwest and supercharging winds, said Ryan Truchelut, president of commercial forecaster WeatherTiger LLC.

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In Canada, El Niño has worried forecasters for months because the phenomenon leads to more storms crossing the U.S. rather than farther north, cutting off large swaths of western Canada from snow. At least 72 percent of the country was in drought this winter, according to the North American Drought Monitor.

A year ago, Canada’s wildfire season began early and morphed into its worst ever. The U.S. was blanketed in smoke that turned the skies over New York City an apocalyptic orange.

Some of those blazes never went out. As of January, a record number of “zombie fires” remained burning in the ground and under snow, with about 100 fires in British Columbia, according to Premier David Eby.

“We’re literally standing up an army of firefighters in British Columbia,” Eby told reporters on Feb. 23, citing 1,000 applicants for the forest fire service, agreements to lease aircraft and helicopters, and discussions with the military. “We’re just profoundly worried about the situation we face.”

Brett L’Esperance is chief executive officer of Dauntless Air, a private fleet of single-engine air tankers that fly across North America dumping water on wildfires. His crews went to Canada last year but also fought fires in Louisiana and North Carolina, places that haven’t needed air tankers before.

Across the continent, “fire season is starting much earlier than it did before, and it ends later,” he said.