2012 . . . already a huge year for forest fires. UPDATED

Arizona and New Mexico might be calming down a bit as the multitude of wildfires are now igniting to the north-

May and June are almost always the peak months of wildfires in the southwest — Arizona and New Mexico. By late June monsoonal rains usually dampen these fires.  In the meantime, the cooler and wetter states to the north dry out making mid-July to mid-September the peak in Utah, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

This year may be following the same pattern, but the big difference is the number and size of the wildfires.  New Mexico began furiously with the state’s largest ever wildfire ever —  “Whitewater-Baldy fire complex” as it was finally named. Currently it has a perimeter enclosing 300,000 acres (470 square miles).  More large fires broke out in New Mexico and Arizona, where last year that state’s biggest — the Wallow fire (540,000 acres) flamed. Both states are naturally dry, but for several years they have been in deep drought.  Many scientists, however, are attributing the size of the Arizona-New Mexico fires to a changing climate.

 U.S. Drought Monitor map for June 19, 2012

In addition to climate change, however, both states slowly became more flammable in the 20th century when natural low intensity fires were excessively suppressed, thus greatly harming  ground fire loving trees like yellow (ponderosa) pine, and cattle grazing destroyed native grass allowing small non-resistant conifers to flourish instead. Worse still, the livestock industry imported flammable grasses from Africa for cattle. These supported fires in the Sonoran desert, which was previously fire resistant.  The Sonoran desert is now gravely threatened by fire which burns the giant cactus and the many kinds of desert country small trees and brush.

Fires quickly following in 2012 in Colorado which is both in drought and has huge pine bark beetle kill. Currently every day brings more fires and the days are now over 100 degrees, setting record highs. President Obama is about to visit the state. Presidential visits during wildfires are often perilous because fires generate political heat and most Presidents are barely informed about the causes of wildfires, how they are controlled, and what can be expected in the aftermath.

Wyoming and Utah were next on the ignition list, and both states now have both large and small fires.  Cooler and wetter Idaho and Montana are now seeing higher than average wildlife activity, but there are no large ones. NW Montana and northern Idaho are unusually wet and might not have much of a fire season unless the rains stop completely.

All of the interior Western states north of Arizona and New Mexico have large swaths of pine bark beetle killed timber.  Depending on the density and age of these beetle stands, the fire danger might be higher than green conifer forest, the same, or lower.  The longer a dead stand of pine goes without burning the less likely it is to ever burn, but while the forest is a mixture of dead and dying trees that still have red or yellow needles on them, they can be explosive.

From now the Wildlife News will be following the fire summer due to its impacts and the inherent interest it generates.  In addition, the media has a record of poor reporting, empathizing destruction and little else, when in fact many fires are beneficial in part or over the long run.

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Update 6/28/2012: Already in the space of a few days numerous fires, some huge have broken out in Montana, mostly east of the Rockies.
Northern Cheyenne Reservation: Fire burning near Ashland grows to 100,000 acres. Billings Gazette.
Bull Mountains (south of Roundup, MT). Bull Mountain residents lose homes to Dahl fire. Billings Gazette

Note that the best official source for fire information across the country is IncWeb.  It has often been slow to load because of the sheer number of people seeking fire information.

You can find the areas of fires on Google Earth now. At http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/googleearth.php you can download a KML showing it.



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  1. elk275 Avatar

    ++Cooler and wetter Idaho and Montana are now seeing higher than average wildlife activity, but there are no large ones.++

    There two fires in Montana each over 100,000 acres. The Dahl between Billings and Roundup has burned an estimated 600 homes in the Bull Mountains. Last year it was historical floods in Roundup and this year it’s fires.

    The Ashland fire is over 100,000 acres with a portion on the Northern Chyenne Reservation and 18 homes lost.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan


    Thanks! Wow! Montana has really exploded. The photos show conifers burning, but are these primarily range fires to grow so fast?

  3. WM Avatar

    The problem with a wet Spring going into a wet Summer is that fine fuels, like grasses grow thick and tall. If things dry out later in summer with high temps and no rain, conditions can be far worse for fire, and if late summer lightening storms hit – perfect storm.

    1. Dan Avatar

      that’s the conditions that lead to the great 1910 fire…

  4. Salle Avatar

    A buddy of mine is a seasoned member of one of the fire crews on the High Park fire. He deployed over ten days ago. We spoke the evening before he departed, during our conversation he spoke about the high temps and wind in the region and that about the time he rotates out of the Colorado event, he’ll be coming home to the area and likely work on fires here for the rest of the summer. I do agree with him. The winds picked up a couple days before his departure and so did the daily temps. It hasn’t rained a drop for the last 12 days and the wind has been significant with rather high temps and “red flag” conditions throughout the continental divide area for days.

    The next lightning strike will undoubtedly deal a serious blow. The winds have been so intense at times that it is difficult to stand or walk against them, and then there’s the “sandblasting effect” from all the particulate matter they pelt you with. Two days ago I was actually impaled by pine needles while walking outside, fortunately they didn’t go deep but still… yikes.

    As for the rapid growth of flora as a result of the wet spring, many of the flora that blooms in mid to late summer have come and many have gone, and they were mostly all stunted. Elephant Heads have already come and are 50% the size and height they normally would be, and it is so for many of the plants I’ve been looking at. The orchids are way early and most seem stunted as well. Some berries are already forming that should be here much later.. Not a good sign. And this winter should be interesting to say the least, I suspect it will come early and be rather harsh.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      It has been a bit the same in Pocatello, Idaho though we are much lower elevation than West Yellowstone, only 4600 feet.

      We had a cold spring with average precipitation, but the sudden disappearance of any precip and flawless blue skies with winds every day are changing things fast. There have been many small fires caused by humans. With no clouds at all, there is no lightning.

      Down in Utah, where fires are exploding, an amazing number of fire starts have come from target shooting in the rocks and adjacent dry grass.

      1. Salle Avatar


        West Yellowstone Smoke Jumper Base is where my buddy is stationed. He said he exppects to be working a lot closer to Yellowstone after his stint in Colorado is over.

        I’m not surprised that Colorado got into the fire season so early this year. a couple years ago, 2010 – late summer – I was in the NW sector of Colorado, out in the NFs, and it was clear that beetle killed trees were a tinderbox melting pot, to mix metaphors. I was surprised to see it, having not heard much in the news. I felt the same even three years earlier when visiting the Stanley, ID area where there were so many dead trees that I was nearly reduced to tears. I remember these areas, in both states, being so lush and green.

        I’m sure that the same will eventually be the fate of the forests in the NRM region (ID, MT, WY) by the end of next year. I don’t anticipate a lot of substantial precip over the next 10 – 12 months, not enough to ward off fire seasons of this magnitude in the foreseeable future. Time will tell.

        1. WM Avatar

          Teton Interagency Fire – 2012 Fire Outlook prepared in late May likely needs update to reflect worsening conditions.

          Prediction for Rockies, especially CO, was pretty much a normal fire year, though snowpack disappeared early. They thought west side of Continental Divide might have higher fire potential as compared to east side, as of May 1, it appeared.


          Northwest (W. WA and W. OR) has been cooler and wet thus far, with many areas way ahead of annual precip average. Eastern WA has been largely within normal temperature range, but precip above normal (slightly to moderately depending on location).

    2. Maska Avatar

      Wind was a major factor in the sudden blow-up of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest. That fire is now mostly contained.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan