Can Rochester get wildfires? Taking a look at our region’s history and risk

Weather Blog

While critical fire weather continues to threaten parts of the western U.S. it raises the question, does New York State ever have the same risk for fire weather? 

It’s a bit more complicated than that where a lot of factors come into play. The short answer is yes, we can have conditions conducive for fire weather, but it’s not nearly at the same frequency or magnitude as places out west. 

We can get wildfires in our area, but the reason we don’t get as many or as extreme is based on our local climate and topography, terrain, and our overall climate and placement in the U.S. relative to prime fire weather patterns.

With that said, the National Weather Service in Buffalo has issued Red Flag Warnings for our area before.

What does that mean?

A Red Flag Warning is issued when the combination of warm air temperatures, very low humidity, and strong winds are expected to combine, producing an increased risk for fires.

A Fire Weather Watch can also be issued roughly 12-24 hours before a red flag warning may be issued. 

When conditions are just right for fires to start, any spark has the potential to ignite and spread. The 3 basic conditions for fire weather we look for are:

  • Low Relative Humidity
  • Gusty Winds
  • Little to no rain over a specific period of time (drought-like conditions)

Here are the specific criteria from National Weather Service:

  • Winds sustained or frequently gusting above 25 mph
  • Relative Humidity values less than 30%
  • Rainfall less than ¼ of an inch during the previous 3+ days

During the summer including the following: 

Over this past summer we have gotten close to these conditions, but not close enough. Which proves to be the case more often than not.

How can fires start?

Photo courtesy: NOAA

A combination of things such as an accidental spark in the presence of oxygen and fuel, an ember from a burning campfire, lightning, heat from the sun, or oftentimes, human error. 

 How long has it been since our region has seen conditions favorable for fire weather?

Data courtesy: mesonet.agron.iastate.edu

It’s been 861 days since the National Weather Service office in Buffalo issued a Red Flag Warning for our region. That’s roughly two years to the date (September 10th, 2020). This means that around 2 years ago the atmospheric conditions did in fact meet the criteria to be favorable enough for the risk of fires to develop.

You can see just how long its been since this type of warning has been issued not only here, but across the entire north and southeast U.S. Notice how parts of California, Arizona, and even Oregon have zero days, meaning a red flag warning was issued for them just today. Even parts of the Dakotas and across the Rockies have only gone single digits without a Red Flag Warning.  

Current Risk

Below is the current Fire Danger Map for New York State assessing the risk from Thursday-Friday, September 10-11th, 2020

Photo courtesy: dec.ny.gov

NOTE: This image shows the current risk ONLY as of September, 10-11, 2020.

Notice the colors of the Fire Danger Color Key. According to this risk map, our region across the Lake Ontario Plains Fire Danger Rating Area (FDRA) is under a moderate risk. Per the description of a moderate risk, fires can start accidentally (with the exception of lightning fires) and the number is generally low, just not zero. Fires are also not likely to become serious and control is relatively easy to obtain.

You can click HERE for the updated risk map and full description key at any time of the year.

With the ongoing fire weather conditions in California, their risk is much higher than us.

Fire weather risk based on climatology

The northeast has a very diverse landscape in terms of population and forestation. There are both areas with little to no forests with a high population, and areas of highly populated forest areas. The areas with more forests specifically would have the greatest risk to damaging life and property regarding fires. 

Sometimes statewide bans are put into place to prevent the start or spread of any fires. You can click HERE for an elaborate write up and study on the climatology of fires across the northeast.

It’s important to realize when the potential for fire weather is present no matter how high or low the risk, because even though the risk is not nearly as high here as opposed to out west, it’s still possible to start a fire with just the right conditions. Even just one spark could do the trick… luckily for us our risk has drastically decreased with the warm, summer weather coming to an end, so until next year! 

You can check out more about wildfires including safety tips HERE

~Meteorologist Christine Gregory

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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