Snow and El Niño: Decoding the US 2024 Fire Season with Insights from TracPlus

AerialFire takes another look at trends around the world that are affecting the fire outlook in part two of our series written by Todd O’Hara; following on from our look at the Australian outlook, this time, we take a deep dive into the trends across the North America region.

As we head into the winter of 2023, understanding the early indicators of wildfire potential becomes crucial. Wildfire risks often emerge well before the spring and summer seasons, making early detection and analysis key to effective preparedness and response. With El Niño’s significant climatic influence this year, we face challenges and opportunities for insight. Early indicators, such as temperature anomalies, precipitation patterns, snowpack concerns, widespread drought conditions, and the state of leaf litter and fuel dryness, are already shaping the potential landscape for the upcoming fire season in the United States.

Amidst these evolving conditions, TracPlus stands as the global leader in aerial firefighting intelligence. While our core competency lies in providing real-time tracking and operational data to firefighting teams, we extend this expertise into translating complex climatic information into valuable insights. This unique capability allows us to offer a nuanced understanding of fire risks, which, although not a core part of our product, demonstrates our comprehensive approach in supporting firefighting operations globally.

This article delves into the forecasts and trends outlined by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)’s Predictive Services team, highlighting the intricate interplay of climatic factors, regional conditions, and evolving environmental patterns. This analysis, informed by NIFC’s expert predictions and long-range climate data from the National Weather Service, aims to provide an in-depth understanding of the factors influencing fire behavior and potential, which are crucial for effective fire management and preparedness strategies. Our approach goes beyond conventional data analysis; it’s about synthesizing our deep understanding of operational data with external climatic insights to equip frontline firefighting teams with comprehensive knowledge, aiding them in making informed decisions in critical situations.


The outlook for the 2023 fire season, informed by the collective forecasts of the Geographic Area Predictive Services units and the National Predictive Services unit, highlights significant regional variations in wildfire potential across the United States. November 2023 saw an escalation in fire activity in the Southern Area, reaching preparedness level three before a return to level two towards the month’s end. This spike in activity was echoed in the Eastern Area but contrasted with the rest of the country, where fire activity was normal or below normal. Despite these regional variances, the overall fire activity in the US was substantially lower than the 10-year average, with acres burned at just over 38%. The climatic conditions, marked by below-normal precipitation in most of the Continental United States and varying temperature patterns, have influenced these fire activities. Drought conditions have persisted or worsened in several regions, including the Four Corners, Mid-Mississippi Valley, and parts of the Appalachians.

The outlook from December 2023 through March 2024, shaped by a strong El Niño pattern, predicts above-normal temperatures for most of the US, with varied precipitation forecasts. While areas like California, the Southwest, and much of the Southeast might see above-normal precipitation, regions like the northwestern US and the Great Lakes are likely to experience below-normal precipitation. This El Niño influence is expected to bring significant changes in the fire potential, with a forecast of above-normal fire potential in Hawai’i into March and the emergence of above-normal potential in parts of the Midwest by March. The Southern Area, however, is likely to see a transition from above-normal to near-normal or below-normal potential, with a forecast encompassing most of the area from Interstate 35 eastward through the Carolinas.



El Niño is a significant climate pattern characterized by the periodic warming of ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. This warming can lead to major shifts in weather patterns across the globe, often altering the typical precipitation and temperature trends in various regions. For North America, El Niño typically results in warmer, drier conditions in the northern regions and cooler, wetter conditions in the southern regions.

El Niño events are part of the broader El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. They occur when the easterly trade winds, pushing warmer water toward Asia, weaken or reverse. This allows warmer water to flow back toward the Americas, increasing ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific. Current models predict a strong El Niño event, which may bring above-normal precipitation through March for the Gulf and East Coast, providing potential drought relief. However, this does not guarantee wet conditions for all regions; areas like Kentucky might see less precipitation, leading to a varied fire potential within the Southeast.


The prelude to the 2024 fire season is marked by a combination of climatic signals that pose a heightened risk, particularly in the Northwestern United States. The interplay of temperature anomalies, precipitation deficits, and suboptimal snowpack levels creates a complex and concerning picture that demands attention from wildfire management professionals and the wider community.

  1. Temperature Anomalies: The Seasonal Temperature Outlook for January-February-March 2024, based on data issued on November 16, 2023, signals a significant departure from the norm in the Northwest, with projections strongly leaning towards above-average temperatures. This trend is not confined to a single state but sweeps across a broad swathe of the region, indicating a pervasive warmth that could precipitate early snowmelt. This warmth, if it extends into the early fire season, can desiccate soils and plant life, thereby increasing the vulnerability of these areas to ignition and fire spread.
  2. Precipitation Patterns: Concurrently, the Seasonal Precipitation Outlook contrasts with predictions of below-average rainfall for the same period. This forecast is particularly alarming because it compounds the effects of the temperature anomalies. Reduced precipitation means that the natural hydration of the ecosystem, which is vital for maintaining moisture in the vegetation and soil, is compromised. This lack of moisture primes the landscape for wildfire, reducing the threshold for fire ignition and potentially leading to more widespread and severe fire activity.
  3. Snowpack Concerns: The critical status of the snowpack levels further exacerbates the situation, as revealed by the SNOTEL data. SNOTEL (SNOw TELemetry) is a network of automated near real-time data collection stations that provides mid to high-elevation hydro-climatic data from mountainous regions of the western United States. The snowpack acts as a natural reservoir for water, releasing it slowly as it melts in spring and summer. However, as of December 7, 2023, parts of Southern Washington and Northern Oregon report snow water equivalents at 30 to 49% of the basin-wide normal. This shortfall in snowpack is not an isolated anomaly; rather, it is symptomatic of a broader trend that could lead to a significantly drier early fire season. The reduced snowpack indicates that the ground and vegetation may not receive the necessary moisture to mitigate fire risks effectively as the season progresses.
  4. Widespread Drought Conditions: The Southeast, particularly from the Lower Mississippi Valley to the Appalachian states, faces a significant drought, expanding into extreme categories. This poses a heightened wildfire risk, especially in areas with pronounced annual rainfall deficits like coastal Texas, Louisiana, and the western Florida Peninsula. The severity of the situation is underscored by the fact that some regions are experiencing deficits nearing three feet, attributed to a combination of dry conditions and a lack of tropical activity this year.
  5. Leaf Litter and Fuel Dryness: The accumulation of leaf litter due to seasonal leaf drop, combined with persistent dry conditions, can substantially increase the risk of fire activity. This risk is particularly pronounced in hardwood-dominant forests where severe drought results in abnormally dry organic soils. This is especially true in portions of the Appalachian states where extreme to exceptional drought has continued to expand. The fresh leaf litter in these areas could substantially affect fire activity until these regions receive significant precipitation to mitigate the dry conditions.

As we anticipate the challenges of the 2024 fire season, the insights from our analysis underscore the critical need for strategic preparedness tailored to the unique challenges of different regions. The interplay of El Niño’s influence, regional temperature and precipitation anomalies, and specific concerns like reduced snowpack and persistent drought highlight the complexity of the upcoming wildfire landscape. These factors reveal potential risks and stress the necessity of adaptive and collaborative strategies in wildfire management.

TracPlus is pivotal in this scenario, leveraging our expertise in transforming real-time tracking and operational data into actionable intelligence. This enables frontline firefighting teams and communities to understand better and anticipate diverse climatic conditions, enhancing their ability to safeguard against the unpredictable nature of wildfires.

Todd O’Hara is a Helicopter, Glider, and fixed-wing pilot and has been an accomplished writer of aviation-based content worldwide. Todd currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer at TracPlus and is based in New Zealand.

AerialFire Staff
AerialFire Staff
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