The big news for the 1998 wildland fire season is how the well-known El Nino phenomenon affected burning conditions throughout the world and the United States. In the beginning of the year, conditions in the northern part of the nation were drier and warmer than normal, while the southern states received above-normal precipitation.
By early spring, these conditions had reversed, with extremely dry conditions reported from New Mexico to Florida, and the northwestern states experiencing cooler temperatures and increased rain. Meanwhile, Alaska, northeastern Montana and the Great Lake states reported very dry fuels.
In early May, hot temperatures and well-below normal rainfall dominated southern states from New Mexico to Florida. In addition, smoke from the fires in Mexico and Central America blanketed many southern states and significantly reduced visibility.
A wet winter followed by a dry spring resulted in an abundance of dry, flammable vegetation in Florida. By mid May wildland fires were becoming uncontrollable, with the potential to create very dangerous conditions for people and property.
By June 16, more than 50,000 acres had burned since the beginning of the year, and nearly 100 homes, and several structures and cars had been destroyed.
A multi-agency, nationwide effort to assist Florida fire managers followed as firefighters, equipment, supplies, management personnel, and aircraft responded to the call. Altogether, 7,000 firefighters from 45 states were funneled into the state.
Throughout June and July an estimated 45,000 people were evacuated as encroaching wildland fires threatened the homes and property of Floridians.
In the end, 2,214 wildfires burned nearly 500,000 acres in the drought-stricken state. Finally, in late July, seasonal rains ended the dramatic Florida wildland fire season.
Other southern states also experienced extremely dry conditions and fought many large fires in May.
Fire managers in Texas were concerned with record high temperatures and record low rainfall reported throughout the state. They asked for the help of fire prevention and education specialists to educate the public and reduce the number of human-caused fires so they could focus their efforts on naturally ignited wildland fires.
Seasonal rains finally brought relief to southern states in late July. Northern Texas continued to experience blistering heat and dry conditions into early October.
A flurry of wildland fire activity occurred in August and September as 100-plus degree temperatures and dry conditions persisted for weeks throughout most of the West. By this time, the threat of wildland fires in the South had subsided and there were ample resources available to fight wildland fires in the West.
Overall the U.S. wildland fire season was relatively slow compared to recent years.
Fire plays a critical role in wildlands by recycling nutrients, regenerating plants and by reducing high concentrations of fuels that contribute to disastrous wildfires. Land managers recognize the role that wildland fire plays in ecosystems and through careful planning and can manage wildland fires for natural resource benefits.
During the 1998 wildland fire season, several wildland fires were managed for resource benefits in Idaho, Montana and Arizona. As of December 18, 358 wildland fires contributed to resource benefits to 62,091 acres. These figures represent fires on all federal land reported to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Every year hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of human-caused wildfires cause millions of dollars in damage to public and private lands and natural resources. They also threaten human lives and destroy wildlife habitat. Many of these fires are caused by carelessness, and many are accidents due to a lack of understanding about fire conditions and fire causes. Wildland fire prevention/education is one avenue for creating awareness among the public and educating them about fire-safe practices.
Teams of specialists helped promote local wildland fire prevention efforts in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Texas and Florida this year. These teams of specialists helped raise public awareness about fire dangers and educate thousands of citizens on how they can prevent unwanted wildland fires.