Tom Warren went on his first wildland fire 15 years ago and has seen more than a fair share of flame on the rangeland since then.
But last August, as he stood on the edge of a northern Nevada wildfire complex that would grow to more than 200,000 acres, the sight was overwhelming. Wildland fire ripped through grasslands, stands of pinyon-juniper and native sagebrush. Flame lengths measured 25 feet high or more. At its peak, the fire raced across the high desert at 40 miles an hour.
"Crazy" might be the best single word to describe the 1999 fire season, which was devastating in some areas and didn’t materialize in places less than a hundred miles away. Another description follows the text of a nursery rhyme: Where it was good, it was very good, and where it was bad, it was horrid.
The Great Basin, and in particular northern Nevada, was one place the fire season was horrid. A low pressure system anchored itself off the northern California coast in early August, spinning enough moisture and atmospheric instability inland to generate a series of thunderstorms through much of the Great Basin. Many of the storms were unaccompanied by moisture and fanned by winds gusting to 50 miles an hour. The result was devastating, a firefighter’s nightmare: in the Great Basin alone, more than 1.4 million acres were burned in less than a week. It was the worst fire season in the Great Basin in at least 35 years, wildland fire experts say.
"Nevada experienced some of the toughest rangeland wildfire we’ve seen in a long time. At one point, 75 percent of all wildland firefighting resources were in that state," says Les Rosenkrance, director of BLM’s National Office of Fire and Aviation in Boise, Idaho.
Not that all the action took place in Nevada. At opposite ends of the continent, Alaska and Florida experienced unusually severe fire seasons. From mid-June to the end of July, the number of acres burned in Alaska jumped from 50,000 to more than one million. Florida suffered through a year where 341,000 acres were scorched. Even the mid-Atlantic states, not known as a wildland fire hotbed, had their share of blazes.
California also experienced an active season. Stubborn wildfires plagued the state well into November, perpetuated by strong winds and almost no precipitation during late summer and early autumn. Two fire complexes, that were ignited August 28 and September 8 challenged firefighters for more than two months as they burned in steep and rugged terrain and dry vegetation.
By early-November, more than five million acres of land burned in about 85,000 wildland fires across the United States.
Do those figures indicate a disastrous season? Not necessarily. Where fire season was good, it was very good. The Southwest and Pacific Northwest, for example, had light-to-moderate seasons. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, northern Idaho and Montana had their bouts with wildland fire, but overall, their seasons were tame.
The erratic fire season can be blamed primarily on one factor: La Nina, a pool of cool water in the tropical seas of the Pacific.
Rick Ochoa, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Boise, Idaho, explains.
"La Nina had a major impact on the fire season," Ochoa says. "La Nina usually brings dry winters and springs to the southern tiers of states. That’s why we’ve had a very busy fire season from Southern California to Florida."
In the Northwest and Rocky Mountain states, La Nina generally brings dry autumns and wet winters. Nevada, California and other parts of the West "had a terrible combination of weather: a windy spring, a hot dry summer, dry lightning in August and September, topped off by a warm and dry fall," Ochoa says.
The mountains started out with record-breaking snows in parts of the West, but they also dried out by late summer. Some well-timed rain in September and a little less dry lightning than Nevada helped keep the lid on fires in the Northwest and Northern Rockies.
"La Nina most likely will continue through the winter. If that’s the case, then we could have an active season in the southern states again next spring," predicts Ochoa.