Why a Warm Winter Equals Early Wildfires

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Seth Wenig / AP

The remains of a charred car sits in the woods where a brush fire burned near Manorville, N.Y., April 10, 2012.

A wildfire inside the confines of a major city is nothing new in the U.S. It’s a little strange , though, when that city isn’t Los Angeles—constantly threatened by the dry Santa Ana winds of autumn—but rather, New York City. Yet early this week a five-alarm brushfire swept through the former Fresh Kills landfill in New York’s Staten Island, burning for more than a day. The fire was stoked by unusually dry weather and strong winds, while the flames fed on the invasive weeds and mulch present on the island. No one was killed, but nearly 200 firefighters were needed to put out the blaze, and the smoke snarled traffic on the freeway.

Staten Island wasn’t the only East Coast area to be hit by unusually early spring fires. Brush fires broke out in New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, while states in the southeast faced red flag warnings for fires. The reason: a record-breaking warm winter in the eastern half of the country, and an unusually dry spring. If those conditions hold, we could be in for a fiery spring and summer that will only add to high temperatures.

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Usually early April is one of the wettest months of the year on the East Coast—April showers and all that—but that’s hardly been the case so far, as meterologist Janice Huff of WNBC in New York put it:

We haven’t seen many rainstorms nor snowstorms and all the vegetation that grew up rapidly from last winter’s rainfall is just all dry and ready to burn.

The unusually warm weather during the winter and especially March—where national average temperatures were nearly 9 F above the norm—encouraged vegetation to grow. But precipitation has been low this winter—just six inches of rainfall in New York’s Central Park since January, half the average amount. That leaves plenty of fuel for any fire that might break out. And the widespread blazes seen so far are much more typical of the wildfires that break out in the dry grasslands of the Midwest, rather than the East Coast. So far this year the New Jersey Forest Fire Service alone has responded to 472 wildfires that tore through 1,335 acres of state land, compared to 214 fires burning 209 acres during the same period last year.

Fighting a wildfire in New York is different than putting one out in the actual wild, as WNYC explored in an interesting post:

Hundreds of area firefighters were deployed to fight fast-burning blazes that erupted in the New York region this week – using wildfire-fighting skills not often used in an urban environment.

When a building catches fire, there’s an edge to how far it can go. But outdoors, there’s often no break to stop the flames from spreading.

Unless the weather turns cool and the rains come—New York firefighters will need to brush up on their brushfire techniques.

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