The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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State, national news

December 12, 2013

Wildfires burn less land than average this year

LOS ANGELES — A wildfire season that began with dire warnings that dry conditions had set the stage for a year of flames across California and the West turned out to be one of the nation’s quietest in the past decade.

Although 2013 was marked by two high-profile blazes, one in California and the other in Arizona, nationally the total wildfire acreage of 4.15 million is far below the 10-year average of 6.8 million acres.

In California, the number of wildfires was high but the amount of land that burned was slightly less than the 10-year average, according to state and federal figures.

As always, weather was the deciding factor. The fierce Santa Ana winds that can turn Southern California’s autumn wildfires into monsters didn’t blow much this year. And in a perverse upside of parched conditions elsewhere in the West, there wasn’t enough moisture for grassland fuel to grow, keeping blazes in check.

“All of the modeled conditions supported a lot of significant fire potential,” said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “But in reality, because of the drought we actually had less fuel on the landscape than we would in a normal year.”

In Nevada — often the scene of huge, racing wildfires fueled by invasive cheatgrass — only about 163,000 acres were blackened.

Late winter and spring storms in the South and an active summer monsoon season in the Southwest kept a lid on burn acreage in those regions.

Still, 2013 will be remembered for a lethal blaze in Arizona and the largest wildfire recorded in the Sierra Nevada in more than a century.

Nineteen members of a hotshot crew died in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill fire in June when they were overcome by 40-foot flames in a rocky canyon near Prescott, the biggest loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York.

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